Switzerland Putting Nuclear to the Vote

Switzerland may expand its nuclear power lineup from five to eight reactors. There is still little resistance to the new reactors among the Swiss, who have come to accept nuclear power.

Most of Switzerland's electricity is from renewable energy sources. The country currently derives 60 percent of electricity from hydroelectric plants and 40 percent from nuclear power. But the Swiss, concerned about possible supply shortages, plan to build up to three new nuclear power plants.

The Swiss government encourage private operators to replace or modernize current nuclear power plants. It had initially planned to build new gas power plants to bridge the anticipated shortage. But these plans were abandoned when new regulations on CO2 offsets came into effect.

Swiss electric utilities plan to build three new nuclear power plants, with a total output of 4,800 megawatts. The plants, Gösgen II, Beznau II and Mühleberg II, would be additions to the country's five existing reactors. However, it remains unclear whether all three projects will in fact come to fruition. Even the major electric utilities, Axpo, Atel and BKW, base their calculations on the assumption that only two new plants are needed.

Referendum to Decide

In June, Atel was the first operator to submit an application for a new plant, its Gösgen II project. The company plans to build a light-water reactor with an output of 1100 to 1600 megawatts, which would make it larger than any of Switzerland's existing nuclear power plants. The proposed plant would be built, at an estimated coast of between six and seven billion Swiss francs, directly adjacent to the current Gösgen nuclear power plant, in Switzerland's densely populated Mittelland region, near the town of Däniken in Solothurn Canton, halfway between Zurich and Bern.

Given the drawn-out approval process for a new nuclear power plant in Switzerland, the operators do not expect Gösgen II to be connected to the grid before 2025. The final decision will be in the hands of Swiss citizens, who will vote in a referendum, probably in 2012 or 2013, on whether a new nuclear power plant should be built at all.

Nuclear power has always been highly controversial in Switzerland, partly because the consequences of a nuclear accident in a small and densely populated country like Switzerland would likely be especially dramatic. An organization called "Allianz Stopp Atom" (Alliance to Stop Nuclear Power), which consists of 28 left-leaning groups critical of nuclear power, has already announced its opposition to the country's nuclear plans.

But the general population's attitudes toward nuclear power have changed in recent years. While referendums in the 1980s prevented the construction of the Kaiseraugst nuclear power plant and, in the early 1990s, a moratorium was imposed on the construction of new nuclear power plants, Swiss citizens clearly rejected an extension of the moratorium in 2003. In fact, more than two-thirds of them voted against a complete phase-out of nuclear energy.

Final Storage Underground

While the political camps on both sides of the issue have remained essentially unchanged, the debate over new nuclear power plants is far more levelheaded today. The ideologically and emotionally charged disputes in the 1970s and 80s culminated in militant foes of nuclear power occupying the construction site for the planned, but never completed, Kaiseraugst nuclear power plant for 11 weeks in 1975. Resistance is considerably weaker today.

But the question of disposal remains unresolved. Switzerland exports its radioactive waste to reprocessing plants at La Hague, France, and Sellafield, Great Britain. The country has been searching for a domestic final storage site for 30 years.

After several projects failed in the face of popular resistance, a new solution is now beginning to take shape. If the government has its way, a final storage site for highly radioactive waste will be developed by 2040 in the so-called Opalinus clay formation, a layer of stone impermeable to water and several hundred meters below the surface. However, a final site has yet to be found.

The town of Däniken, which has jurisdiction over the area where Gösgen II will be built, holds a positive view of nuclear power. Thanks to the existing reactor, the community already collects 3.5 million francs per annum in direct tax revenues. In addition, utility giant Atel sponsors local clubs, sports and cultural events, and employs about one-fourth of Däniken's residents.

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