Swiss government votes to phase out nuclear power in response to Fukushima disaster


Publish date: May 25, 2011

Written by: Charles Digges

The Swiss government Wednesday decided to exit nuclear energy by phasing out the country's existing nuclear plants, possibly by 2034, and seeking alternative energy sources to meet its energy needs in response to safety concerns over Japan's ongoing crisis as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

“This is great news and hopefully we will see a lot of other countries follow the Swiss in the near future, both in Europe and elsewhere,” said Bellona’s nuclear physicist Nils Bøhmer Wednesday.

Switzerland is the second country in Europe after Germany to opt to drop nuclear energy as an electricity source after protests flared up amid fears that the reactor meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was hit by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a 15-metre tsunami on March 11, could be repeated elsewhere.

Meanwhile Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the embattled plant’s owner, said data analyses suggested damage to its reactors may have caused cracks and openings in the reactor containment vessels equivalent to a 10-centimeter hole, Japan’s NHK television reported Wednesday.

The news represents what has been widely suspected for nearly two and a half months, and is one of the most critical forms of damage that can occur within a nuclear reactor.

“We have to consider whether we want to live with this risk,” Swiss Energy Minister Doris Leuthard told a news conference in Bern Wednesday. “Nuclear energy has become more expensive in recent years and the cost will only increase in the future.”

Leuthard told reporters that the engineered lifespans of the country’s five nuclear reactors –  which are distributed across four nuclear power plants – would not be extended.

Leuthard said the government was working with an engineered lifespan of 50 years, meaning the first of five power stations would close in 2019 and the last in 2034.

She said safety was critical to the government decision.

“The existing reactors will operate for as long as they are safe,” she said, adding that no firm date had been set for the withdrawal and that while the reactors’ lifespans could be less than 50 years “it could also be 60.”

Leuthard said the government balked at an immediate shutdown because its assessment is that Switzerland’s nuclear reactors are safe, and that immediate withdrawal would create an energy gap.

Yet, when it was clear that the ongoing crisis at Fukushima Daiichi was acute, the Swiss government suspended all processes relating to the building of new power plants and ordered a review of options for the country’s future energy mix in the future.

“Our reactors are safe. An immediate shutting down would weaken the network and the capacity could not be replaced,” she said.

Nevertheless, Leuthard was “convinced” that the government’s decision would pay off in the long run –  “new jobs will be created and Switzerland will find itself in a good position internationally.”

Second country in Europe to swap nuclear for renewables

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated her country would phase out nuclear power by 2022.

“The [Swiss] government has voted for a [nuclear] phase-out because we want to ensure a secure and autonomous supply of energy,” said Leuthard.

“Fukushima showed that the risk of nuclear power is too high, which in turn has also increased the costs of this energy form,” she said.

Leuthard sends a message to the ‘business elite’

Switzerland generates roughly 40 percent of its energy from the country’s five nuclear reactors. The rest comes mostly from the more than 1,000 hydropower plants that are located in the Alps and along Switzerland’s rivers.

Speaking on Wednesday, Leuthard said that the 40 percent nuclear energy shortfall would be compensated for by more hydroelectric plants, as well renewable resources like solar and wind power to meet the energy demand.

While she declined to provide an investment figure, she said that people and companies should also save more energy going forward and that Switzerland could consider tapping fossil fuels to meet demand.

“We want to send a clear signal to the business elite, the population and to investors,” Leuthard said. “It won’t be easy, but we are convinced that this is the right step and that it will pay off in the long term.”

Parliament unlikely to resist government phase-out

Before the government decision is finalized, the Swiss parliament will discuss the issue. Leuthard said a popular referendum on the question also could be held.

But resistance to the government’s decision is expected be limited as the ongoing events in Japan have changed popular opinion toward nuclear power, analysts said.

The largest demonstration against nuclear power that has occurred in Switzerland for over a quarter of a century took place over the weekend. Its estimated 20,000 demonstrators who gathered in the north of the country had hoped to influence today’s decision of the Swiss government.

Protestors also took aim at the lack of a viable storage facility for used nuclear fuel rods. Finland is in the process of finalizing the world’s first permanent storage facility, but plans in Switzerland to create a similar facility have been repeatedly shelved.

Switzerland has a long tradition of popular resistance against nuclear power. During the 1980s, mass protests prompted the government to discontinue a nuclear-power project.

TEPCO says cracks in containment vessels occurs quickly after quake

In Japan, TECPO told NHK television that reactors Nos 1 through 3 at the plant suffered nuclear fuel meltdowns after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami. This is likely to have created holes and cracks at the bottom of the pressure vessels protecting the reactor cores and damaged the containment vessels.

Massive amounts of highly radioactive water has also leaked from the structures.

TEPCO came to its conclusions by analyzing the changes in pressure levels inside the pressure and containment vessels to gauge the scope of the damage, the television station reported.

TEPCO said the analyses show that holes in reactor No 1’s containment vessel amounting to 3 centimeters in total may have formed as little as 18 hours after the quake. The company told NHK that this crack may have have expanded to 7 centimeters within at least 50 hours after the quake.

The utility said holes and cracks equivalent to 10 centimeters in diameter might have formed in the reactor No 2’s containment vessel about 21 hours after the quake. TEPOC said a similar quantity of holes could have been created in the suppression pool chamber by an explosion heard coming from reactor No 2 on March 15th.

TEPCO said these results were obtained through data calculations, and that it has yet to confirm whether such holes actually exist, NHK reported.

Swiss utilities staggered my the news

The decision to discontinue the country’s nuclear power plants comes as a shock to Switzerland’s utilities. Leading power companies Axpo Holding AG and BKW FMB AG had planned to build two new plants and pledged to invest some $10 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported.  

The companies had said new power plants are needed if Switzerland wants to avoid being dependent on expensive energy imports. The companies also warned that Swiss industry would suffer from high nergy costs.

“The government decision will become a problem as far as supply security is concerned,” Axpo chief executive Heinz Karrer told the paper. He called for an in-depth analysis of the government decision and said that the Swiss population should vote on the issue.

The Swiss government has estimated that the gradual phase out of nuclear power would cost $2.5 to $4.4 billion.

Renewable’s group embrace ‘ground-breaking decision’

The Agency for Renewable Energy, which says it represents around 8,000 Swiss companies, greeted the government decision as “ground-breaking decision,” predicting it would result in a “sustainable and business-friendly supply of energy”.
“It’s basically what we asked them to do,” Christian Zeyer of Swiss Cleantech, a sustainable economic association, told Swissinfo. “We’re looking for an economy that is sustainable as a whole.”

Zeyer said the nation could turn eventually turn to hydropower, wind energy, biomass and photovoltaics.
“We can get by just fine – not at the moment, not immediately – but as time goes on there will be enough opportunities to increase renewable energies,” he said.

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