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A chronology of Switzerland's nuclear phase-out: the decision is drawing near

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Nils Epprecht ‒ energy and nuclear campaigner, Schweizerische Energie-Stiftung (Swiss Energy Foundation)

Switzerland is approaching an energy policy period with great consequences. Before the summer recess, the passage of the first package of 2050 Strategic Energy Measures promoting the expansion of renewable energy. In autumn, this "compulsory program" is then followed by the "free skating" main event, a national referendum on an orderly exit from nuclear energy. With these decisions, the belated Swiss energy transformation may finally gain momentum – or else the tentative testing of the waters of a renewable future will once again be stifled by the overpowering conservative electricity industry.

Let's review events over the past eight years.

2008: New reactors on the planning horizon

Back in 2008, everything seemed to be taking an orderly course, when the three large Swiss energy suppliers, Axpo, Alpiq and the BKW – each predominantly in public hands – submitted to the government the first of a total of three applications for the construction of a new Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR). With this, the three aging reactors, which according to the operators were unsafe, in Mühleberg (commencement of operations in 1972) and Beznau I and II (1969 and 1971) should one day be replaced, and together with the two other reactors in Gösgen (1979) and Leibstadt (1984), the foundation for the future of nuclear energy in Switzerland should be laid.

Since in Switzerland, the construction of new reactors is subject to a discretionary referendum, it was reckoned that a vote would be taken in 2012. At the same time, the search by energy producers for a final disposal site for nuclear waste – one of the requirements of the new reactors – was apparently intensified, at least outwardly. The opposition from nuclear critics was intact but not insurmountable from the point of view of the nuclear proponents.

2011: The turning point

The turning point in the chronology took place on 11 March 2011: The Fukushima disaster and its global political fallout. The quick decision of Germany to accelerate the 2000 agreement to phase out nuclear energy had – as is the case with many decisions in that large, neighboring country – an influence on the debate in Switzerland. In June 2011, the Swiss government also decided on a "gradual" phasing out of nuclear energy. New reactors should be forbidden; unlike in Germany, no specific shutdown date for the existing nuclear power plants was set.

With this, the Swiss energy minister anticipated the new political reality: a referendum for a new reactor one year after Fukushima would certainly end in a crushing defeat. As a consequence, a comprehensive strategy was developed by the government that showed how the approximately 33% nuclear energy in the Swiss power mix should be replaced. To do so, an overall package was created in which the medium- and long-term reduction in the dependence on fossil fuels was also integrated. The decision to phase out nuclear energy therefore became an actual about-face in energy policy. No fewer than 10 laws must be revised for this purpose as part of the "first package of 2050 Strategic Energy Measures."

However, the government is not alone in its thirst for action. Just two months after the Fukushima disaster – and thus even before the government's phase-out decision – the Green Party began collecting signatures for a national public initiative for an orderly nuclear power exit. Besides a ban on all new construction, this also provides for a 45-year time limit on the operation of existing reactors. The Green Party initiative proved to be a good campaign resource as well. In the national elections in the fall of 2011, anti-nuclear parties were the clear winners. Political scientists talk about the "Fukushima Effect".

2013: The legislative mill

What followed was the protracted, orderly Swiss legislative process. First a nationwide consultation and review process on one of the first draft laws. Afterwards, beginning in 2013, the government's draft bill was discussed back and forth in both parliamentary chambers during which not all of the original supported intentions remained intact. The phasing out of nuclear energy was also pruned: the laws dealing with the existing reactors are left in their pre-Fukushima version to the greatest extent possible. The requirement of a so-called "long-term operation concept", which provides for a maximum of 10 years extension in each case, was not inserted into the law against the wishes of the Nuclear Supervisory Commission. The principle of "operation as long as safe" remains the maxim for existing reactors.

2015: The great forgetfulness

The laws had not yet been fully discussed when national elections appeared on the agenda in the fall of 2015. Without the nuclear mushroom cloud on the horizon, the general drift to the right in Switzerland's political landscape continued. Instead of nuclear disasters, the topic of migration stands atop the "Swiss Worry Barometer." And the parliament already showed its new vision in the continuation of the consultation proceedings on the 2050 Strategic Energy Measures: the draft bill was watered down bit by bit. The original proponents of the 2050 Strategic Energy Measures appeared ready to swallow the bitter pill under the motto "a bird in hand is worth two in the bush."

2016: New realities

The Green Party's initiative for a real phasing out of nuclear energy, which was repeatedly tabled by the government as part of the 2050 Strategic Energy Measures, finally comes to a vote in the coming autumn. Apart from the fifth anniversary, there are few reminders of Fukushima during the run-up period. But a new reality emerges: low energy prices and electricity market liberalization create major financial problems for Swiss energy suppliers. In March, an Alpiq paper is leaked in which the ailing corporation presents considerations about the nationalization of nuclear power plants, which are operating at a loss.

The decision made by BKW to definitively shut down its reactor in Mühleberg in 2019 became official with the decommissioning application – the various required retrofits demanded by the regulatory authorities on the basis of the findings from Fukushima are too costly. And the Beznau I reactor has been shut down for almost one year because of anomalies in the reactor pressure vessel; its future is uncertain.

Thus many voters suddenly begin to ask themselves whether an economically moribund technology will be carried to its grave anyhow through the forthcoming vote. There is really no alternative to an exit and it is now a matter of minimizing the – until now only economic – damage as much as possible. The regulatory authorities have already warned about a growing risk of the reactors because of the lack of investments in their final years of operation. The fixed operational time limit of 45 years and the soon deactivation of Beznau linked to that provide the clearest answer to these considerations.

We will vote this fall. Instead of the question: "What is the half-life of the Fukushima disaster in the minds of Mr and Ms Schweizer?", it seems that the question we are perhaps posing much more quickly than thought possible is: "How do we best say goodbye to obsolete technology?" Or if we return to the figure skater's programme mentioned at the outset: After countless pirouettes around the 2050 Strategic Energy Measures, will we finally be able to end the entire compulsory and free programme brilliantly? It would be desirable for an advanced, high-technology and scenically rich Switzerland if she could bid farewell to her ancient collection of reactors.