The development of the Swiss energy supply since 1800 – Part 3

The road to civilian use of nuclear energy

Author: Giulia Ferraro

In the last blog post, we saw that nuclear power was the hope of the federal government and the electric power suppliers. With it, Switzerland aimed to free itself from fossil fuels and from foreign dependence. But the beginnings of nuclear power go back further.

Civilian use of nuclear power

Nuclear energy was used earlier in the 20th century – but as a weapon of war. Its destructive potential became known to the population through two incidents: the dropping of the two atomic bombs by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. As is to be expected after such a catastrophe, the population’s opinions on nuclear power were divided. On the one hand, people were afraid of nuclear war. On the other, there was hope for potential civilian use that would relieve the energy supply. In 1955, the Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy took place. The Confederation signed a research agreement with the United States in 1956. This enabled it to buy a reactor and nuclear fuel cheaply in the USA. From then on, a great deal of research was carried out in Switzerland in the field of nuclear fission and energy with subsidies from the federal government.

A Switzerland without raw materials

Due to the coal shortage and during the oil crisis, Switzerland had already suffered from foreign dependence. Hydropower and wood could not supply the entire country with energy. Nuclear energy, it was hoped, would fill these gaps. Despite nuclear research, Switzerland’s electricity consumption in the early 1960s was too low to build a nuclear power station. Between 1948 and 1973, the growth rate of gross energy consumption was 6.25%. When the USA launched the first large nuclear power plant in 1963, Switzerland bought one. For USD 68 million, it was built, licensed and the necessary staff trained. NOK, now Axpo, placed an order for the construction of the Beznau I Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) and BKW for the construction of the Mühleberg NPP. The two power plants went into operation between 1969 and 1972. At the same time, the share of oil in the energy mix fell by about half in the 1970s.

Shattered dream

In the early 1970s, after the first power plants had been built, a counter-movement to the proponents of nuclear power was already emerging: an environmental protection movement. Up to this point, it had mainly been representatives from business, parties and authorities who were active in energy policy. Now, a new school of thought took hold. Participants in the environmental movement campaigned for a new, sustainable energy system. However, their goals and ideas did not find broad support among the population. With the influence of the new movement, energy began to become more of a political issue. Between 1979 and 2003 alone, 15 national referendums were held in Switzerland on energy issues, seven of which dealt with nuclear energy. The environmental movement did not achieve majorities in the votes, yet it did influence the energy regime.

In the early 1970s, after the first power plants had been built, a counter-movement to the proponents of nuclear power was already emerging: an environmental protection movement.

Environmental protection as part of energy policy

In 1971, the Federal Office of the Environment was created in Switzerland. There was also a referendum on the extension of the Federal Constitution to include an article on environmental protection. This was accepted with a clear 90% of the vote. This went down in history as the «Year of the Environment».

From 1974 to the present day, much of the financial resources for energy research has gone into nuclear energy. In 1974, the Confederation set up the Federal Commission for the Total Energy Concept (GEK). The GEK was given the task of describing the overall state of Switzerland’s energy supply, defining goals for energy policy and creating measures in line with these goals. Initially, only representatives of the energy industry sat on the Commission. After environmental movements protested, one representative each from the environmental movement and the scientific community joined the commission.

The defined goals of the GEK were an adequate and secure energy supply, optimal energy prices and the protection of people and the environment. As measures, the GEK recommended the constitutional anchoring of an energy article and the introduction of an energy tax. Furthermore, the population was to be informed and educated, price mechanisms, were to be used, regulations established, taxation demanded and subsidies for certain energy sources were to be made available. Subsequently, investments in the energy sector increased from CHF 37.4 million to CHF 97.5 million between 1974 and 1980. In 1990, the energy constitution article was adopted for the first time with 71% of the vote. The focus was on nuclear energy and the greenhouse problem. The article also authorised the Confederation and the cantons to work towards a diversified, secure, economic and environmentally compatible energy supply.

Energy strategies from 1990 to the present day

In 1990, the Department of Transport and Energy launched the «Energy 2000» programme. Its focus was on energy-saving measures and the expansion of renewable energies. The cantons supported the programme. It included targets for reducing energy, oil and electricity consumption. In addition, it defined the goal of increasing the share of renewable energies in the electricity mix to 3.5% by the year 2000 and of increasing electricity generation through hydropower by 5%. In addition, the proponents sought to increase the output of the existing nuclear power plants by 10%.

In 2001, «Energy 2000» was replaced by SwissEnergy. Here, too, new goals were defined for the next ten years, including reducing CO2 emissions in Switzerland by 10%, not increasing electricity consumption by more than 5%, reducing the use of fossil fuels and thus also using more renewable energies. The first two targets for reducing CO2 emissions and electricity consumption were not able to be achieved by 2010 as desired, but the other two were.

In the referendum proposals from the 1970s until 2008, the environmental movement was concerned with phasing out nuclear power and the federal government with expanding it. The proposals of both sides were always rejected by the population. As a result of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, the Federal Council finally decided in the same year to gradually phase out nuclear energy. In 2013, the Federal Council adopted the first package of measures of Energy Strategy 2050, which was approved by the electorate in 2017. The three main measures of the strategy are the expansion of renewable energies, the increase of energy efficiency and the gradual phase-out of nuclear power. Thus, no new nuclear power plants may be built and the existing ones may continue to operate as long as they are safe.

These measures also bring new challenges, including for the grid operator Swissgrid. The electricity grid must be optimised, expanded and strategically renewed. You can find out how Swissgrid does this in our next blog post.


Giulia Ferraro

Working student

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