On 20 December 2019, Switzerland will shut down the Mühleberg nuclear reactor in the canton of Bern.
The plant went into operation in 1972, making it the nation’s second oldest nuclear power station after Beznau, which started its first reactor in 1969.
The Mühleberg power station, which takes its cooling water from the Aare river, was originally scheduled for shutdown in 2012. This date was later extended to 2019. Fissures in the mantle surrounding the reactor and rising operating costs mean the plant is no longer economically viable.
Groups concerned about the safety of the reactor are celebrating. The safety justification for the nation and it neighbours for shutting down this reactor has existed for a long time, according to Philippe de Rougemont, a spokesperson for the group Sortir du nucléaire, a group that organised an unsuccessful referendum in 2016 to precipitate the phaseout of Switzerland’s nuclear power industry.
The Mühleberg reactor, which is the closest Swiss reactor to Lausanne and Geneva, must now be decommissioned. Radioactive material must be cooled, processed and disposed of safely. The organisation Sortir du nucléaire said it will keep a close eye on this process, which it considers a major risk.
Switzerland has five nuclear reactors on four sites. After the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan, the Federal Council, Switzerland’s executive, said it would build no new nuclear reactors and decommission existing nuclear power plants at the end of their safe operational lifespans. It estimated the safe operational lifespan to be about 50 years, which means Beznau I would be taken offline in 2019, Beznau II and Mühleberg in 2022, Gösgen in 2029 and Leibstadt in 2034. However, the government made no commitment to close any nuclear reactor by a specific date. The Federal Council was supported by parliamentary and upper house majorities.
A big question has always been how Switzerland will cope without nuclear electricity.
Swiss electricity consumption is only declining slowly – it fell 1.4% between 2017 and 2018. As homes and factories become more electrically efficient the number of electric cars is rising.
Producing more clean energy is the other hope. However, beyond hydro, which has natural limits, other renewable energy production is small (7.2%). And it only grew by 1.3 percentage points between 2016 and 2017.
The 2050 energy plan announced by the Federal Council in 2011 acknowledges that increased fossil fuel-based electricity production and imports may be required.