Atomic energy unpopular despite widespread use

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Nuclear energy provides Switzerland with 40 per cent of its power but more than one in two citizens oppose the technology to some degree, a survey has revealed.

The study, released on Tuesday by the Federal Energy Office, found that just seven per cent of respondents were totally in favour of energy production by nuclear power stations.

Double that percentage were fully opposed.

The bulk of Swiss – 33 per cent and 38 per cent – said they were fairly in favour and fairly opposed, respectively. Eight per cent had no answer.

One of the biggest issues of contention is finding a place to put radioactive waste. At present, spent nuclear material is kept in temporary aboveground facilities while politicians and communities wrangle where to bury it.

On Saturday, 2,000 protestors gathered at a site north of Zurich - a region under evaluation for storing spent nuclear fuel.

Safe disposal
"Safe disposal is feasible in Switzerland," Werner Bühlmann, the deputy director and head of the legal services and safety division at the Federal Energy Office, told swissinfo.

He added that while a feasibility study by the Swiss nuclear agency – Nagra – had been approved, there is no definite place at present for spent fuel to be stored.

There is enough intermediate storage capacity in Switzerland for the next 60 years, Bühlmann said.

There are facilities for low-radiation material in Scandinavia, but for the most part, authorities around the world are faced with the same reality: people enjoy the benefits of nuclear power but nobody wants to deal with the waste.

Increasingly, Europeans are seeing nuclear energy as a positive force in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, Social Democratic parliamentarian Rudolf Rechsteiner, a prominent anti-nuclear advocate in Switzerland, says it is not worth the risk.

"Atomic energy is qualitatively a more dangerous energy and internationally, the experiences have been negative regardless of whether a country uses nuclear energy or not," he told swissinfo. He says the hazards of nuclear are played down by the industry and quotes a shocking statistic in defence of his argument.

"Since Chernobyl, many people have woken up and know that each reactor produces as much radioactive materials each day as three to four atomic bombs," he said.

Rechsteiner calls nuclear power "a great strain on the environment".

"The situation today is that we can perfectly replace nuclear energy with renewable sources – wind and sun," he argued. He says wind energy could make up ten per cent of Switzerland's energy by 2025 to 2030.

« It is difficult to find a middle position. It seems to be a question of faith. »

Horst-Michael Prasser, an expert in nuclear systems at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and a proponent of nuclear technology, says that if done properly, it is inexpensive and safe.

"The only minus for nuclear is a high potential risk with a very, very low probability for a large accident," he told swissinfo.

"But if the plants are operated normally at a high level of safety, then nuclear is better than anything else in terms of, for example, land use, health costs, by the amounts of raw materials."

He says the ecological friendliness of so-called green technology is not as straightforward as it appears.

"If you compare nuclear with wind energy or solar energy, you will find that the mass flows of copper and concrete and steel that you need for running the energy system are at least one order of magnitude higher than the other fields," he said.

Werner Bühlmann of the Energy Office finds himself understanding the merits of both arguments.

For opponents, the small chance of a massive catastrophe is untenable but on the other hand, with the exception of one ten-year moratorium, the public has rejected every single referendum to ban nuclear energy since the 1970s.

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