Third quarter of 2002

Switzerland divided over the reprocessing question, but industry remains wary

At a time when Switzerland is politically divided over the introduction of a law banning reprocessing of irradiated fuels, the Gösgen nuclear power plant announced, on 24 May 2002, that it planned to increase its storage capacity from 600 to 1 600 fuel assemblies.

WISE-Paris, 5 July 2002

[Posted 05/07/2002]

On 20 June 2002, the Swiss National Council postponed a parliamentary debate on a nuclear energy law that includes a ban on reprocessing of Swiss spent fuel, until the next session in September 2002. The proposed progressive nuclear phase out and reduction of power plant life to 30 to 40 years was, however, defeated by 83 votes to 62-to the great disappointment of the socialist-green group. The middle class majority believes that nuclear power-which meets 40 per cent of the country's electricity needs-is essential so long as there is no adequate alternative. (1)

Two initiatives (2) from the Strom ohne Atom association are at the source of the ongoing debate about nuclear power in Swiss government circles. One, known as Sortir du nucléaire (phasing out nuclear power), of 28 September 1999, proposed abandoning of reprocessing, the other, known as Moratoire plus (moratorium plus), of 10 September 1999, aims to reduce the life of nuclear power stations to 30 or 40 years. Both propositions were rejected by the Council of State in December 2001, on advice from the Federal Council, but their entire contents were nevertheless included by the Government in a proposed law on nuclear energy. More moderately, the Senate, without following the Government's proposal to simply ban reprocessing, proposed, on 20 December 2001, a moratorium of 10 years on the subject.

Going against the government proposal, the parliamentary majority also authorised sending of nuclear waste to the La Hague and Sellafield reprocessing plants, by 76 votes to 63. Interpretation of this vote is complex. According to independent consultant Hans Hildbrand, 15 socialist members, generally hostile to reprocessing were absent at the vote, whereas 13 conservatives from the CVP voted against the reprocessing option. Nonetheless, the Parliament's position could call into question the decision by the Council of State, made in December 2001, according to which transport to reprocessing plants would be 'frozen' for 10 years after 2006, when current contracts expire.

Firmly intending to add its weight to the debate, the nuclear lobby clearly manifested its support, via the Association suisse pour l'énergie atomique (ASPEA-Swiss association for atomic energy), for a law guaranteeing 'the competitiveness of Swiss electricity production, but above all its environmentally friendly character'. (3) Pushing home the message, and apparently attempting to influence the ongoing parliamentary debate, ASPEA published the results of a survey carried out in February 2002 among both French and German Swiss, at the initiative of several Swiss nuclear power plants. According to the survey, three-quarters of the 2001 people asked thought that nuclear power plants were 'safe' or 'fairly safe'. The sample population surveyed also thought that safety of an installation, not its age, ought to determine its service life. (4) Sixty-nine per cent of respondents were in favour of retaining reprocessing as a possible solution. However, more than three-quarters asked to be associated with the decision-making process for construction of a new power plant.

The results of this survey appear to contrast, at least partially, with those obtained by Greenpeace in a European survey on reprocessing, in June 2000. According to Greenpeace, 80 per cent (87 per cent in Switzerland) of people interviewed living in European countries that are clients of reprocessing of spent nuclear fuels at the La Hague and Sellafield plants are in favour of banning discharge of radioactive effluents into the sea. (5)

Finally, Gösgen power plant's announcement, on 24 May 2002, of the signing of a 67 million Swiss Franc (around 45 million Euro) contract with Framatome to extend the storage capacity of irradiated fuels, (6) can be interpreted as an additional signal from operators in favour of stopping of reprocessing. In a press release, (7) the plant declared that, with the extended spent fuel storage capacity, 'we are also taking account of the consequences of a possible ban on reprocessing'. Asked about this, Constentin Bachmann, the plant's communications manager, emphasised that the extension was primarily an adaptation of the storage pool, allowing longer periods of cooling for irradiated fuels. He stated that the increased level of enrichment used today (from 3 per cent in the 1980s to 4 per cent at present), the progressive increase in burn-up rate (from 30 GWd/t in the 1980s to 50 GWd/t today), and the use of MOX in the reactor made longer cooling periods for spent fuels necessary, regardless of their downstream management. Irradiated fuels are therefore replaced less often-at a rate of 40 assemblies per year, as against 60 formerly, for a total of 177 in the core-but have to be cooled for longer before any subsequent management steps.

The extension of storage, which should become operational in 2006, will allow the plant to keep fuels on site for 15 years, instead of five years at present. While declaring that this extension was not planned as a provision for abandoning of reprocessing, Mr Bachmann nevertheless underlined that the work at Gösgen would make it possible to 'place spent fuels [after their cooling period] in containers for the Würlingen storage installation' (8) dedicated to high-level waste. Before adding that, 'in the event of a decision to ban reprocessing, we would have no problem'.


  1. SwissInfo, 'Le Parlement ne veut pas renoncer à l'atome' (parliament does not want to give up the atom), 26 June 2002,
  2. Initiatives: projects that could, among other things, lead to changes in the law or to moratoria, are presented to the Council of State if they are supported by a minimum of 100 000 signatures
  3. ASPEA, 'La Suisse a besoin d'une bonne loi sur l'énergie nucléaire, et pas d'un marchandage ", 13 June 2002
  4. ASPEA, 'Un sondage confirme la confiance dans l'énergie nucléaire suisse', 13 June 2002
  5. Univers Nature, 'Sondage sur le nucléaire (Europe)',
  6. Gösgen-Däniken nuclear power plant, 'Modernisierungsprojekte im KKG', 24 May 2002,
    Dated 24 May 2002
  7. Personal communication with Mr Constentin Bachmann, Gösgen power plant, 28 June 2002

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