Lessons to take from Switzerland's slow phase-out
3 December 2012
This article appears in the latest issue of IEA Energy: The Journal of the International Energy Agency.
By Alexey Lokhov
In the post-Fukushima Daiichi era, many countries have had second thoughts about nuclear power, and some – notably Germany – have firmly turned their backs on the industry, ordering shutdowns of plants. Switzerland, where several referendums on nuclear energy over the years have shown guarded support, has taken a middle path: dropping all plans for new plants but allowing existing plants to keep operating so long as the government regulator validates their safety.
Switzerland has five operating nuclear power reactors, ranging in age from 28 to 43 years old. They generated two-fifths of the country’s electricity needs in 2010, with most of the rest coming from hydropower. The Swiss Energy Strategy 2050 initiative is working out the policy implications of the decision to build no new plants.
When hesitation turned into opposition
Switzerland, thus, offers one roadmap for dealing with nuclear power amid opposition born of the nuclear crisis that followed the tsunami that hit Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, in March 2011.
The decision not to permit construction of any new nuclear power plants essentially means that Switzerland will phase out nuclear energy, but gradually and slowly.
Sudden policy changes bring uncertainty to industry and make it hard to attract and maintain a skilled workforce. Knowing well in advance when nuclear power plants will mostly likely end operations permanently is critical to ensure staffing and funding for safe operation and then decommissioning. Those resources are also necessary to continue associated research and development.
How to solidify the public’s trust
Rebuilding public confidence in nuclear power requires clear messages and more information on long-term operation of plants.
The International Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency urge governments to engage with the industry to ensure well-planned implementation policies. The public and stakeholders also need to be informed in detail about intended and ongoing refurbishment programmes and other activities related to long-term operation of plants so that they have ever-greater confidence in the safety of the existing plants.
At a general level, the public should be informed in an objective and transparent manner of the benefits and challenges of using nuclear power. This will enhance confidence in the plants and support regulatory activities.
Switzerland demonstrates useful steps towards strengthening that confidence, some of which it undertook before the Fukushima Daiichi accident.
Most importantly, the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate (ENSI) was detached from the Swiss Federal Office of Energy in 2009 and established as a fully independent body under the ENSI Board, which is elected by the Federal Council and reports directly to the council.
ENSI not only closely monitors safety and security at the power stations, but it also oversees the interim storage facility for radioactive waste and all nuclear research facilities. ENSI supervises the transport of radioactive materials to and from nuclear facilities (Switzerland does not have a nuclear fuel-cycle industry and imports all its nuclear fuel) and is involved in the siting of deep geological repositories for radioactive waste.
After the Fukushima Daiichi accident, ENSI re-examined safety levels at Swiss nuclear plants, focusing on plant design in respect to earthquakes, external flooding and any combination of those two events, as well as safety and auxiliary systems’ coolant supply and cooling of pools for spent fuel. It ordered some immediate rectifications such as establishing external storage facilities for emergency equipment and reinforcing the cooling of the spent fuel pools.
ENSI also required that operators of all the Swiss plants participate in stress tests that were mandated by the European Union, even though Switzerland is not a member state.
After the batteries of tests, ENSI reported that the plants in the country were highly resistant to the effects of all natural hazards, including earthquakes and flooding, as well as able to withstand electrical power failures and extended station blackout events.
Alexey Lokhov is an analyst in the Nuclear Development Division at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency who focuses on small reactors and the economics of the fuel cycle’s back end and power plants’ long-term operation. He recently served on the IEA review team for Swiss energy policies.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) produces IEA Energy, but all analysis and views contained in the journal are those of individual authors and not necessarily those of the IEA Secretariat or IEA member countries, and are not to be construed as advice on any specific issue or situation.
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