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Switzerland: closer to a nuclear phase-out or tactical pause?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Philippe de Rougemont, President, Sortir du nucléaire

A referendum on the construction of three new 1600 MW nuclear power plants (NPP) was  to be held in 2013, for a planned grid connection in 2025. That was before the Fukushima catastrophe. Since then the federal department  in charge of energy decided to uphold the entire consultation process to "learn more" from the Japanese catastrophe.

When the nuclear catastrophe started to unfold at Fukushima-1 on march 11, the Minister for energy and infrastructures, Ms Doris Leuthard, a former nuclear lobby board member, decided to uphold the non-decisionary consultation process - mandatory under the new nuclear energy law - that was to lead to a decisionary referendum expected for 2013 (see Nuclear Monitor 676, 4 September 2008). The reason given for this decision was to analyse 3 new nuclear power plants projects using new knowledge gained at Fukushima. A country without sea coastline has no tsunami warning zone, but other residual risks exist, such as major breaches in large mountain dams that could drown nuclear installations, earthquakes or human errors.

The federal council ordered new studies, on the security of the 5 existing nuclear reactors and on future energy scenarios, including nuclear phase-out plans. At first the antinuclear campaign was relieved by this, until doubts started clouding the federal decision. Had Ms Leuthard been genuinely shocked by the new nuclear catastrophe, enough to halt a process that was supposed to lead to the building of at least one new nuclear power plant that she backed until then? Or was it a tactical decision, namely, a momentary suspension, not a grounding? Was she afraid Swiss citizens wouldn't vote according to plan this time, and simply decided to postpone the vote until momentary emotional considerations receded back to normal? Since 1984, three votes on nuclear phase out initiatives (formal proposals) have been put to vote. Each one failed to phase out nuclear power, apart from a 1990 vote, 4 years after Chernobyl, that imposed a 10 year moratorium on nuclear power plant constructions.

What are the current prospects for change on the energy issue outside of the federal council?

The Swiss Green party launched a new federal initiative, gaining political and NGO support. If voted into the constitution (in 3 to 5 years), it would bar construction of new nuclear power plants and limit life cycles of existing reactors to 40 years, with a last closure in 2024. The Socialist party, also in competition for new green votes, announced parliamentary initiatives to phase out nuclear power.

Major editorialists and conservative politicians have taken position against nuclear energy, before Fukushima this wouldn't have been expected. In June the Swiss parliament will hold sessions dedicated to future energy scenarios; will the anti-nuclear drive lose momentum or will this catastrophe act as a catalyst for change? Two weeks after Fukushima, a poll showed 87% of the population wanted a progressive nuclear phase out.

Source and contact: Philippe de Rougemont, President, Sortir du nucléaire, CP 1378  CH 1001 Lausanne
Email: [email protected]