While Germany rushes ahead with its nuclear phase-out and France dithers, Switzerland is following a third way away from nuclear and towards renewables. The Swiss version of the Atomausstieg/Energiewende is slow but steady, with concern for economic as well as environmental consequences. Bern’s policy offers important lessons to Paris, Berlin and others – all the more so because Switzerland is one of the most nuclear-dependent countries in the world.
Both Germany and France are having major problems with their respective versions of Atomausstieg. The far-reaching reform of the Energiewende announced by German economy and energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel in the spring is definitive proof that Angela Merkel’s decision to phase-out nuclear energy so hurriedly was prompted by electoral calculations rather rational economics. The ends of the Energiewende are not in question, the means definitely are.
In the meantime, what has been happening on the other side of the Rhine is probably even less inspiring. After decades of enthusiastically pushing for the development of a strong nuclear industry, French ruling circles have so far failed to come up with a clear course of action for the nuclear future of the country. French President François Hollande’s promise that the nuclear share in the electricity mix would be reduced from today’s 75% to 50% by 2025 has been confirmed by the first documents of the long-expected energy transition law presented by the French government on 18 June. But it is still unclear how this could be accomplished and, most crucially, what will happen after 2025.
Every kWh produced until the last nuclear plant is switched off will contribute to the funds covering the future costs of decommissioning.
But in between the French tortoise and the German hare, there is a third, smaller country whose energy policy is hardly ever mentioned. That is a pity. For Switzerland is advancing on the same road away from nuclear energy, but is going more swiftly than France and more prudently than Germany.
Fukushima seen from the Alps
The 2011 Fukushima disaster caused an earthquake in Swiss energy politics. According to Franco Romerio, an energy specialist at the University of Geneva whom we interviewed, Swiss public opinion as well as policymakers the political sphere was strongly impacted by the images of destruction coming from Japan. As a result, the course of the country’s nuclear policy radically changed.
Before March 2011, the five Swiss nuclear plants, producing 35% of the country’s power, were widely considered to be an essential component of the national electricity mix. Constructed between 1969 and 1984, as Switzerland was facing the limits of its immense hydroelectric potential (58% of the country’s power production in 2012), their renewal had been announced by the main utilities (Alpiq, Axpo and FMB) in the late 2000s. Also, plans were well underway to build a new reactor near Olten, in the canton of Solothurn. The Swiss population, despite a ten-year moratorium on the construction of new plants after a referendum in 1990, had demonstrated its attachment to nuclear energy by rejecting a phase-out proposition through popular voting in 2003.
The Swiss electricity mix in 2012
Source: Office Fédéral de l’Energie, OFEN
(Speicherkraftwerke are impoundments, Laufwasserkraftwerke are run-of-the-river stations, also called diversions. See here. Editor.)
Fukushima changed this. Less than two months after the nuclear accident, the Swiss Federal Council decided on the principle of gradually phasing out nuclear energy. As Franco Romerio puts it, most Swiss political parties backed the decision, fearing for their electoral position ahead of the October 2011 federal elections. The worries of the Swiss were all the more understandable as their country is one of the most nuclear-dependent worldwide and its limited geographical size would mean that a Fukushima-like “exclusion zone” – as unlikely as it seems – would most certainly encompass the bulk of the densely populated plateaus as well as Bern, the federal capital.
Despite these concerns, the Swiss did not rush into things – and that is why the Swiss nuclear phase-out is very different from its German counterpart. No nuclear plant was shut down immediately. After all, an earthquake of the magnitude of Fukushima’s was, and still is, extremely unlikely in the near future in this part of the world. Therefore the Swiss authorities gave themselves time to design a reasonable and sustainable long-term plan for their country’s energy future. The resulting 2050 strategy was adopted in 2013 by the Swiss Federal Council and presented to the Parliament in September that year, along with a first package of measures.
The Swiss decided to scrap all their previous plans to renew the five existing nuclear reactors or to build new ones. At the same time, they decided to keep them operational until the end of their normal lifetimes, as assessed from a technical perspective by the independent Swiss nuclear safety authority (Inspection Fédérale de la Sécurité Nucléaire, IFSN). The Federal Council estimates that this lifetime will not exceed 50 years. In practice, this means that all plants will be closed down between 2019 and 2034. Incidentally, this is a mere 5-year difference compared to the time scale envisaged by a popular initiative (the Swiss term for referendum bill) that was supported by more than 110,000 signatures in 2011 and put before the Parliament in 2012. So the government and the population seem to be on the same page and neither the nuclear-enthusiasts nor the atom-haters can claim to have been sidelined.
François Hollande’s indecisiveness does not only reveal a lack of long-term political vision, it might also turn out to be economically detrimental.
The slow winding-down of the Swiss nuclear capacity will be progressively compensated by a gradual increase of renewable energy capacity and probably by theaddition of a limited number of combined-cycle gas plants to ensure network stability. The Swiss do not hide their aversion to coal and their energy policy over the last 50 years has gone to great lengthsto avoid it completely. In fact, when the news broke out in Switzerland in the late 2000s that Swiss energy companies were investing in coal-fired plants abroad public opinion strongly mobilized against it.
Why the French and Germans should look upstream rather than across the Rhine
There are various reasons why the underreported Swiss Atomausstieg could inspire French and German thinking.
The Germans should be the first to look towards the Alps.
- The slower-paced Swiss plan will not lead to a dramatic increase of CO2 emissions, like the one Germany experienced over the last few years as power producers were pressured to rapidly build new (coal-fired) capacity to ensure network stability after the nuclear shut-down. A gradual phase-out means a gradual shift from CO2-free nuclear to environmentally-friendly renewables, skipping in effect the coal-dependent phase in which Germany is currently bogged down. Such a well-paced phase-out also means that the Swiss will not have their tongues and hands tied when it comes to denunciating the exploitation of the Columbian, South-African and Russian workforces by mining companies exporting to coal-hungry Germany.
- In a similar vein, the Swiss way offers a reasonable compromise for the operators of nuclear plants. The Swiss government does not shy away from pressuring big utilities into shifting to a greener system, which is already damaging their balance sheets. But it does so in a manner that leaves no room for them to sue the authorities as Vattenfall is doing in Germany, demanding €4 billion because the government is preventing it from doing business.  In other words, the Swiss do ensure that political goals remain prevalent over private rates of return without getting embroiled in potentially very expensive legal proceedings.
- Last but not least, the time Switzerland is giving itself to prepare for the nuclear exit will be put to good use. Bruno Pellaud, former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Swiss nuclear expert, whom we interviewed, stresses that every kWh produced until the last nuclear plant is switched off in 2034 will keep on contributing to the two funds created by the Swiss government in 1984 to cover the future costs of plant decommissioning and handling the nuclear waste. It will thereby be ensured that they are sufficiently stocked when the time comes. According to official estimates, total decommissioning cost should amount to around 19 billion CHF (€ 15.5 billion), which translates in 0.10 CHF/kWh (0.08 €/kWh). This figure is clearly below the € 36 billion estimate of the German industry for its own plants. But the money will be raised without constant bickering between the authorities and the companies over the extra costs caused by an unanticipated shut-down. 
As far as the transition énergétique is concerned, the French have made it abundantly clear that the hasty German approach seemed little appealing to them. France refused to take a clear stance on the nuclear issue until the recent announcement of the long-expected and much-debated energy transition bill. As it now stands, by 2025, nuclear will constitute 50% of France’s power production (down from 75% today) and the maximum total nuclear capacity of the country is established at 63.2 GW (today’s capacity). Though laudable and unprecedented in a country where criticism of nuclear energy has been taboo for the last 40 years, the French should remember that they have at least one other neighbour that can pronounce Energiewende – and more slowly at that.
- Clearly, France is still balking at adopting a firm long-term position on the nuclear issue. 2025 is just around the corner in an energy-policy time frame, and the new energy bill is silent about the future of France’s nuclear capacity beyond that year. While the Swiss have made a clear commitment until 2034 and beyond, the future of the French electricity mix is left to 5-year plans that are still to be negotiated (Programmation Pluriannuelle de l’Energie, PPE). François Hollande’s indecisiveness does not only reveal a lack of long-term political vision, it might also turn out to be economically detrimental, as businesses need a clear regulatory environment and long-term stability to flourish.
- Additionally, the Swiss Federal Council clearly mentions in the 2050 strategy that it does not expect the Swiss plants’ lifetime to exceed 50 years. The independent Swiss nuclear safety agency is fully in charge of deciding on the close-down of each plant, on the basis of technical and safety parameters only. A bit further down the Rhine, the French government did not mention any expected maximum lifetime for its plants. What is more, even though the French nuclear safety authority’s powers are being expanded by the new law, the plant operators – read EDF – still have the right to decide on the close-down of each plant. The French government does supervise the whole process, but the decision criteria are reliability of power supply, network balancing and potential financial consequences. This is a far cry from the Swiss safety-first approach.
- The Swiss energy transition also tells France that it is possible to make decisions with a view to eventually exiting nuclear energy while taking into account the interests of the industry and the future stability of the network. True, the Swiss nuclear industry is a far from being as important to Switzerland’s overall economy as the French one is to France’s – indeed the Swiss do not have their own nuclear technology. But for this reason it is also unable to divert its resources to activities abroad. The two leading French nuclear companies, Areva and EDF, already generate respectively 64% (2012) and 47% (2013) of their turnover outside France.So France should focus more strongly on supporting the competitiveness of its industrial giants abroad rather than to refuse to put pressure on them for fear that it could damage the domestic economy.
Let us then hope that when the French energy transition bill finally becomes a law, after what promises to be a heated debate, it will have a bit of the pragmatism for which the Swiss are famous.
Do not throw out the baby with the Rhine water
Critics will point out that Switzerland cannot be taken as a relevant model in the energy field precisely because Switzerland is… Switzerland. It is endowed with a hydropower potential that many EU countries look to with envy (58% of the electricity mix in 2012), it is unconstrained by EU competition and liberalization laws and it is “blessed” by its relatively small size. Despite its big share in the electricity mix, the Swiss nuclear capacity is, compared to France’s and Germany’s, respectively 16 and four times smaller in absolute terms. Yet these undeniable facts should not lure us into thinking that Switzerland’s energy situation is not in any way comparable with that of its two bigger neighbours.
Switzerland is poised to be integrated into the European energy system, which makes it all the more relevant as a model.
True, Switzerland is endowed with an enormous hydraulic potential. But this potential is already almost entirely harnessed and hydropower cannot be expected to compensate for decreasing nuclear production. Thus, the 2050 strategy foresees that the average annual electricity production from hydropower will increase from 35,913 gigawatt hours (GWh/y) today to 38,600 GWh/y by 2050, a mere 7% increase. Additionally, Bruno Pellaud points out that although hydropower – especially pumped-storage facilities – can compensate for intermittent production from renewables over the day/night cycle, it cannot alone ensure stability of the network between dawn and dusk, let alone offset the summer/winter fluctuations. On top of that, pumped-storage projects are not profitable in current market conditions – due to low power prices – and it is widely expected that climate change will reduce average production from existing dams in the medium to long term, mainly due to the receding of glaciers as a result of warmer weather. The Swiss response to those challenges is to include a limited number of combined-cycle gas-fired power plants in its 2050 strategy, to ensure back-up capacity. In that sense, hydropower is no panacea for Switzerland nor does it make for a unique situation from which nobody could learn.
The fact that Switzerland is not in the European Union also plays little role in its handling of the nuclear issue. So far, the EU has gone to great pains to avoid taking a clear stance on nuclear matters, which remain the prerogative of member states. So Switzerland does not enjoy more freedom than France or Germany in this regard. Similarly, Switzerland is currently negotiating a far-ranging agreement on electricity markets with the EU and it will have to comply with most rules of the Third Energy Package in order to keep its facilitated access to the EU market – all-important for its economy. Opening to competition from European actors (which is already partly the case), exploitation of cross-border links according to the acquis communautaire as well as rules on transparency and subsidies are on the menu. So Switzerland is poised to be integrated into the European energy system, which makes it all the more relevant as a model.
Franco Romerio summarizes the situation well: “a quicker phase-out would have implied a bigger bill (like in Germany). A longer lifetime [of nuclear plants] would have cast doubts over the ambitious goals of the energy policy (like in France). Additionally, according to the Swiss nuclear safety experts, this calendar does not call into question the safety of the plants.” Following this path, Switzerland can hope to maintain its position at the top of the Sustainability Index of the World Energy Council and to show its neighbours that its middle way is well worth considering.
The Swiss 2050 energy strategy
- Average annual energy consumption per capita to be reduced by 54%, compared to 2000. This corresponds to a countrywide energy consumption of 125 TWh.
- Average annual electricity consumption per capita to be reduced by 18%, compared to 2000. This corresponds to a countrywide electricity consumption of 53TWh.
- Power production from renewable sources, excluding hydropower, should reach 24.2 TWh (which is by and large 42% of the country’s expected power consumption in 2050).
- Power production from hydropower to reach 38.6 TWh.
- Higher CO2 taxation and new norms in the housing and construction sectors
- Agreements with the industry and electricity suppliers on energy efficiency targets
- Stricter CO2 emission targets for vehicleRenewable energy:
- Higher ceiling for the price surcharge paid by end consumers (2.3 ct/kWh against 1.5 ct/kWh today)
- Legally recognized right to self-consumption
- Better guarantees for geothermal projects
- Short authorization procedures
Feed-in Tariffs and support schemes
- In the future, renewable energy producers will be responsible for selling their power production themselves on the market
- The value of the FiTs will be determined by calls for proposals, i.e. the projects presenting the lowest production costs (“lowest bidder”) will be granted access to the support scheme
- A new minimum of 300 kWh for small hydro projects to be eligible for support
- One-off upfront subsidies for small photovoltaic projects
- Support mechanisms for renovation and enlargement projects
- Waste-burning plants, wastewater treatment plants and fossil-fuel-fired plants will not be eligible for FiTs anymore
Fossil-fuel-fired power plants
- Possible exemptions of the CO2 tax for some combined-cycle plants, under strict conditions
- Support for small combined-cycle plants
- Shortening of administrative procedures
- Introduction of legal status for smart meters
- Beznau 1 and 2 – Production start: 1969 and 1971 – Power: 365 MWe – Expected date of shut-down: 2019 and 2021
- Mühleberg – Production start: 1971 – Power: 372 MWe – Expected date of shut-down: 2021
- Gösgen – Production start: 1979 – Power: 985 MWe – Expected date of shut-down: 2029
- Leibstadt – Prodution start: 1984 – Power: 1,165 MWe – Expected date of shut-down: 2034
(non-exhaustive summary. For more information, visit: http://www.bfe.admin.ch/themen/00526/00527/index.html?lang=en )
 8th largest nuclear share in the energy mix in 2012, http://www.bloomberg.com/visual-data/best-and-worst/most-reliant-on-nuclear-energy-countries