Swiss Nuclear Controversy

Kyle Stowers
March 15, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

Nuclear History

Fig. 1: Mühleberg nuclear power plant. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

For many years, nuclear energy has been a very important topic in Switzerland. In 1946, a Swiss committee for atomic energy was first formed with Paul Scherrer as the president of the committee. [1] After the USA, USSR, and UK established their first reactors in the 1950s, the Swiss committee planned to develop their own reactor. An experimental nuclear plant in Lucens went into operation in 1968 but, corrosion of some of the fuel elements led to a shutdown in 1969. It took about 10 years to decommission the plant, and the site became freed from regulation in 1995. As a result of this failed first attempt, Switzerland ordered nuclear reactors from the US and Germany. Construction of nuclear plants began in 1969. Today, Switzerland has five nuclear reactors: Beznau 1, Beznau 2, Mühleberg (see Fig. 1), Gösgen, and Leibstadt. [1]

Nuclear Controversy

However, there has recently been controversy about nuclear power. Aside from the failure of the first experimental reactor in Switzerland, there have been two major world incidents: the Chernobyl accident and the Fukushima disaster. The Chernobyl accident, which occurred in 1986, released large amounts of radioactive substances as dust into the atmosphere when the reactor was completely destroyed by an explosion. [1] The Fukushima disaster then had the effect in Switzerland, as it had had in other countries, of generating great opposition against nuclear power. There were attempts to plan for safe management of nuclear wastes, but political opposition in support of other energy sources made it extremely difficult to pass anything in support of nuclear energy continuation. [1] This then led to the Swiss parliament's decision not replace any of the reactors. [1,2] The present plan is to phase out nuclear energy in Switzerland, thus eliminating it as an important part of a low-carbon future. [2]

But doing so is not so simple. [2] The problem is that nuclear energy has become so valuable in Switzerland that moving on from it is economically difficult. 37.9% of the electricity in Switzerland presently comes from nuclear energy. [3] There are some benefits to furthering the production of nuclear power plants as a source of energy rather than other options: Uranium costs are low relative to coal and natural gas. Operating costs of nuclear plants are not high. Other energy sources can be intermittent. Newer nuclear plans are safer and more efficient. [3]

There are negative considerations as well: There is the possibility of nuclear production being used for warfare. [3] There are the negative effects on the environment, the amount of space and precise location needed for a plant, and the amount of time it takes to build nuclear plants compared to coal or hydroelectric plants. [3]

Despite the challenges of shifting energy dependence from nuclear to other sources of energy and arguments that support further nuclear production, Switzerland is still aiming to be nuclear-free in the long run. [2]

Nuclear-Free Swiss Future

Discussions are underway in Switzerland, as well as many other countries, about whether nuclear power should be part of the future or not. [1] The protection of man and the environment has always been the priority in Switzerland, and is the reason why many push for a nuclear-free future. The limited supply of fossil fuels as well as the imminent rise of climate change due to the rising amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere needs to be considered when making this assessment. Even if other energy sources are more efficient, nuclear phase-out does not seem so likely to happen immediately. [1] But for Switzerland, it is the goal.

© Kyle Stowers. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. Grätz, "Swiss Nuclear Phaseout: Eergy Supply Challenges," ETH Zürich, September 2012.

[2] F. R. Aune, R. Golombek, and H. H. Le Tissier, "Phasing out Nuclear Power in Europe," Oslo Centre for Research on Environmentally Friendly Energy, May 2015.

[3] H. Völkle, "50 Years of Radiation Protection and Nuclear Power in Switzerland: A Brief History," Atoms for Peace: An International Journal 1. 239 (2006).