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Japan crisis reignites nuclear debate

Switzerland’s five atomic plants produce 40% of its electricity Keystone

Centre-left parties have called for a quick opt-out of atomic energy after the nuclear catastrophe in Japan. But the parties on the right are less convinced.

However, despite the intense political discussion about Switzerland’s energy policy, radical change on the issue in parliament looks unlikely.

Atomic energy was already set to be a key theme in next legislative period, with parliament to decide on three requests for new nuclear plants to replace the five current ones, which are coming to the end of their lives. The population was supposed to vote on the issue in 2013 or 2014.

But the accident on March 11 has given the debate a new impulse. The centre-left Social Democrats and the Green Party are now calling for a special parliamentary session in June and have put forward multiple motions, interpellations and initiatives to be discussed.

They claim the measures announced on Monday by Energy Minister Doris Leuthard – to re-examine safety in Swiss nuclear plants and to suspend temporarily requests for replacement facilities – do not go far enough.

“Doris Leuthard said that the population’s safety was of utmost priority. Now she has to translate these words into actions: the government should follow the example of Germany, which has already decided to close the older nuclear plants,” said the Green Party’s Christian van Singer.


The Social Democrats and the Greens want the three older reactors of Beznau I and II and Mühleberg to be shut down by 2012 at the latest. “We may not have tsunamis in Switzerland, but we are at risk of earthquakes, floods and hurricanes and can never exclude technical breakdowns,” said van Singer.

The parties say that plant closures would not negatively impact electricity supply. “In Germany four sites have been shut down and nobody has felt it. Too much electricity is produced in Europe anyway: electricity does not just generate energy, but also money,” said Social Democrat Geri Müller.

“The three old sites only generate 8,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of the 26,000 produced by the five current plants in Switzerland, so just a small part of our electricity. Renewable energy projects that have already been put forward could see production rise to 9,000 GWh,” added party colleague Eric Nussbaumer.

“But these projects are on ice because current legislation is hindering investment in renewable energies. We urge legislation to be changed quickly – several studies have, for example, shown that photovoltaic energy could guarantee 30-35 per cent of our electricity.”

An energy efficiency programme could also save 15 per cent electricity, say the parties, adding that these measures then would be enough to replace the output of the two younger nuclear plants (Leibstadt and Gösgen) within a decade. They also want the government to draw up a law outlining a nuclear energy exit plan.


On the defensive

Centre-right parties, however, have found themselves on the defensive and have called for clarifications from the government.

“March 11 has called our energy policy into question. We are now looking into the safety of current plants, the guarantees given should their concessions be extended and the costs and alternatives of abandoning nuclear power,” said Pirmin Bischof of the Christian Democratic Party.

A postulate has been sent to the cabinet. But the party, which says it is ready to examine all

options, has warned against acting too hastily before clarifications have arrived. The Radical Party takes a similar line.

“Now we have to think about whether we should keep atomic energy in the medium or long-term. But we also have think about how to replace this 40 per cent of electricity: we don’t want to import atomic power from our neighbours,” said the party’s Rolf Büttiker.

“We have to find out about the alternatives. Until now it’s been the same people who want a nuclear-energy opt out who keep opposing new hydroelectric or wind projects for environmental reasons.”

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party is maintaining its pro-nuclear stance. “It’s still difficult to evaluate the consequences of March 11 for Japan and ourselves,” said the party’s Hans Killer.

“Switzerland is not at risk of such strong earthquakes, let alone tsunamis. Our situation is not the same,”

“We are very much in favour of new checks, but we don’t believe that our plants are less secure now or that they will no longer be an alternative in the future. We will also need nuclear energy in 20 to 30 years’ time to guarantee our electricity supply.”

Switzerland currently has five nuclear reactors which generate about 40% of the country’s energy but will gradually come off the power grid as of 2019.

 In 1990 voters approved a ten-year moratorium for the construction of new nuclear power plants. In 2003 – three years after the end of the freeze – the electorate rejected an extension of, or definite withdrawal from, nuclear energy programmes.

Three sites for new nuclear power stations  – Beznau, Gösgen and Mühleberg – have been given the stamp of approval by the national regulatory authorities, but have now been put on temporary hold. The Swiss were due to vote on the construction of new reactors in a nationwide ballot in 2013 or 2014.

Renewable energies (wind, sun etc.) provide only around 5% of electricity and less than 2% of the total energy consumed in Switzerland.

The Federal Energy Office has come up with three scenarios for nuclear energy in Switzerland, following the Japan accident.

Apart from abandoning nuclear power or continuing the status quo, a compromise solution is also being drawn up, the Energy Office’s director Walter Steinmann told Swiss television.

This would involve building a replacement plant and, at the same time, investing more in renewable energies.

The move updates scenarios prepared in 2007. The new analysis should be ready in a year’s time and will be used as a basis for political decisions.

(Translated from Italian by Isobel Leybold-Johnson)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR