Second quarter of 2003

After the Nuclear Referendums in Switzerland: From Explicit to De-Facto Phase-Out

WISE-Paris, 12 June 2003

[Posted 12/06/2003]

On the occasion of the national referendums of 18 May 2003, the majority of the Swiss people clearly rejected the two popular initiatives on a new 10-year moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power stations (« Moratorium plus ») and a nuclear phase-out within 30 years (« Sortir du nucléaire »). This means a « no » to a nuclear phase-out plan. However, the current planning does not call for any expansion either! The alternative law to the moratoriums, which now becomes effective, does not show any sign in favor of the construction of new nuclear units.

After the rejection of the two initiatives, the new nuclear energy act (« LENu », Loi sur l’Energie Nucléaire) — adopted by the Federal Assembly on 21 March 2003 in the course of the preparations for the referendum — was published in the “Feuille Fédérale” (Official Bulletin) on 27 May 2003. (1) In accordance with legislative procedures, its final adoption will be effective if there is no demand for a referendum within 100 days, that is until 4 September 2003.

Environmental groups might not call for a new referendum. In fact, even if the law stays very much behind the two texts submitted to vote, they did influence the preparatory talks. (2) Thus, Greenpeace, the Swiss Energy Foundation (FSE) and WWF announced that they would neither demand nor support such a referendum in order not to put at stake the « remarkable improvements compared to the former Atomic Energy Act (« LEA », Loi sur l’Energie Atomique ) due to the pressure imposed by the initiatives “Sortir du nucléaire”. » (3)

In particular, any project to build new nuclear power plants or refurbish existing reactors (five operating units) will, however, be subject to a referendum option. This makes any effort to expand or extend life of the Swiss nuclear reactors significantly more difficult. Even if Switzerland does not officially speak out in favour of the phase-out of the reprocessing of spent fuel, the new law imposes a 10-year moratorium on shipments to reprocessing plants – a de facto ban of plutonium recovery during this period of time, beginning 1 July 2006. According to the new law, « during this laps of time, they [the spent fuel assemblies] must be regarded as radioactive waste ». This period of time can be extended to 20 years by simple federal order.

Switzerland, as all of the nuclear countries, does not have any operational final disposal site for spent fuel. However it has already built an intermediate storage facility for highly radioactive waste, the Zwilag facility near Würenlingen. (4)

Some operators made preparatory arrangements for the current development. Extension work started at the on-site spent fuel storage facility of the Gösgen power plant, increasing the storage capacity from 5 to 15 years. While this is not officially linked to the new law, one wonders whether it is a mere coincidence if this extension is to start operation in 2006.

Regarding reprocessing in France, the moratorium introduced by LENu should not affect current reprocessing contracts. Of a total quantity of 761 metric tons of spent fuel under contract with the French plutonium company COGEMA, 619 tons had been reprocessed as of 31 January 2002, (5) and as of 30 September 2002, 77 tons were stored at La Hague awaiting reprocessing. (6) After two shipments that took place since 30 September 2002 (around 9,51 tons each), there are 46 tons of spent fuel at the most to be shipped from Swiss power plants to La Hague, i.e. about 5 shipments that could easily be carried out before 2006.

The situation at the Sellafield THORP plant, in the UK, is quite similar to the situation in France, as far as transports to be carried out under current contracts are concerned. Contracts between BNFL and Swiss operators cover 422 tons, (7) of which 366 tons were sent to Sellafield, 70 tons reprocessed and 56 tons to be delivered as of July 2000. Remaining quantities to be shipped do not represent any obstacle for the 2006 deadline.

Beyond this, the moratorium implies a non-renewal of reprocessing contracts. This will bear important consequences outside Switzerland: after Japan, Germany and Belgium, reprocessing companies – COGEMA in France and BNFL in the UK – have to face the disappearance of yet another of their historic customers. This contributes to worsen already dull perspectives of the short- and medium term plutonium business.


  1. Nuclear Energy Act (LENu) of 21st march 2003, Feuille Fédérale n°20, 27 May 2003:
  2. See WISE-Paris Our News, « Switzerland divided over the reprocessing question, but industry remains wary », 5 July 2002
  3. Greenpeace-FSE-WWF, « Pas de référendum contre la Loi sur l'énergie nucléaire », joint news communiqué, 23 May 2003:
  4. See WISE-Paris Our News, « Third shipment of vitrified waste on its way back to Switzerland », 19 October 2002
  5. Commission Spéciale et Permanente d’Information (CSPI) de l’Etablissement COGEMA de La Hague, « Bilan d'exécution des contrats COGEMA avec les clients étrangers », bulletin n°10, April 2002
  6. COGEMA La Hague, « COGEMA La Hague: production et transport », 24 octobre 2002
  7. Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), « Status of THORP Baseload Contracts », briefing, 23 March 2001

Back to contents