Small country, big challenge: Switzerland’s upcoming transition to sustainable energy via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Switzerland has a long tradition of using nuclear energy. With no reserves of coal, oil, or natural gas of its own, the country had to turn to other sources to meet its energy needs. As a result, a nation of only 8 million people—a bit larger in population than the state of Massachusetts—has five nuclear power plants, making Switzerland one of the top seven nuclear-powered nations on the planet on a per capita basis (IAEA, 2014). (The nuclear power plant at Beznau, in the country’s far north, is the world’s oldest operating nuclear power plant.) All told, nine percent of Switzerland’s total energy demand is met by nuclear power—a figure triple that of the United States (World Nuclear Association, 2015a).

Another telling statistic is that nearly 40 percent of Swiss electrical generation comes from nuclear power (see Figure 1). To give a sense of what that proportion means, only 19 percent of US electricity is generated from nuclear power (World Nuclear Association, 2015b). (The burning of coal has been of almost no consequence in Switzerland’s total energy mix for the past 50 years—in sharp contrast to the United States, where 44 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from coal (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015)). The country’s famed train and trolley systems are all electric, with the energy to power them coming nearly entirely from a combination of hydro and nuclear power.

But after Fukushima the Swiss government decided to close down all its nuclear power plants, without a clear vision of what will take their place—a pressing concern at a time of ever-increasing demand. In the past Switzerland had relied heavily on wood, native hydropower, and imported fossil fuels (namely coal, crude oil, and natural gas) to meet its energy needs. But each of these energy sources faces problems: The supply of wood is diminishing (and burning wood as a fuel introduces particulates into the atmosphere (Notter, 2015)); the variety of coal most commonly available in the neighboring countries of central Europe is high in sulfur, contributing heavily to acid rain and global warming; and climate change is making the snowpack in the high mountains shrink, causing uncertainty about how much longer the country can rely on hydropower.

Consequently, phasing out nuclear power could be tricky. Discussions are under way as to exactly when to close which nuclear power stations, and more importantly, how to replace the power they now generate. Will it come from purchasing—or possibly sharing—electricity from neighboring countries? Photovoltaics? Wind power? Energy conservation? No one solution is perfect, especially at a time when the economics of energy in Europe is being turned upside down by new German policies on wind and solar power. What’s more, there are geographic and strategic aspects to any decision that Switzerland makes. How will the country make the change to something more sustainable, and what will its likely energy future look like? The solution may lie not in one answer but in many answers; the solutions that Switzerland comes up with may well portend the future for other countries.

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