Switzerland’s decision to phase out nuclear energy is in part a reaction to safety concerns surrounding nuclear power plants. This paper evaluates the effects of global nuclear incidents and the “Not in My Backyard” mindset on regional nuclear policy; examines the relationship between the town of Döttingen, Switzerland and Beznau, the nuclear power plant it hosts; discusses the potential impact of Switzerland’s national nuclear energy plans on the local scale; and offers predictions for the future of energy in Switzerland.

Swiss Nuclear Power

In 1955, an international conference called “Atoms for Peace” was organized in Geneva, Switzerland. As part of the conference, a small nuclear reactor was shipped from the United States and displayed to the public for the first time, where it was well-received by the conference's attendees. Due to the exhibit’s popularity, the reactor was kept running for several weeks, irradiating the device to such a degree that it could no longer be shipped back to the United States. Swiss physicist Paul Scherrer suggested that the United States simply sell the reactor to Switzerland -- an agreement that laid the groundwork for Switzerland’s nuclear energy program. The test reactor, known as SAPHIR, was moved to the town of Würenlingen in 1957, and the development of a non-experimental reactor followed in 1962. In 1965, construction of Beznau, Switzerland’s first nuclear power plant, began (Volklei).

Since 1980, energy consumption has been growing in Switzerland at an annual rate of 2% (“Nuclear Power in Switzerland”), and nuclear energy currently provides much of Switzerland’s energy needs. 56% of Swiss electricity comes from hydropower, 3% from fossil fuels, and 2% from renewable energy sources. The remaining 39% is produced by nuclear power plants (“Energy Sources”). In addition to generating electricity, Switzerland’s five nuclear power plants also produce materials used in medicine, industry and research (“Nuclear Energy”).

A Case Study: The Beznau Nuclear Power Plant

The village of Döttingen, a community of approximately 3,700 in the northern Swiss canton of Aargau, has a long history of hosting energy industry “firsts,” beginning with Switzerland’s first major hydroelectric power plant in 1902. The country’s first oil-burning thermal power plant was constructed in Döttingen in 1948. At the time, this was Europe’s most powerful gas turbine power plant (“The Community of Döttingen”).

In addition to its history of accepting innovation in the energy industry, Döttingen offered an ideal location for the construction of Switzerland’s first power plant. The site is located on an artificial island in the middle of a river, isolating the plant from the town and providing the necessary water for the plant’s operation. The infrastructure left over from the 1902 hydroelectric power plant also made Döttingen an optimal location for a nuclear power plant (Arnal).

On December 23, 1964, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy approved Döttingen as the site for the Beznau nuclear reactor. Construction began in November of the following year, and on December 24, 1969, the plant became operational (“Permits for Nuclear Facilities”). The plant’s second reactor, Beznau 2, opened in 1971 (“The Community of Döttingen”).

Döttingen is recognized as an “Energy City,” a designation awarded by the Swiss Energy Commission. This status, currently bestowed upon more than 290 cities in Switzerland, is given in recognition of socially and environmentally responsible energy policies (“The Community of Döttingen”). Döttingen portrays itself as having a culture interwoven with its energy-rich history and a pride in its nuclear power plant. The “Energy City” award logo is prominently emblazoned on the top of every page of the town’s website (“The Community of Döttingen”).

Döttingen’s extensive history at the forefront of new energy production technologies has had an appreciable impact on its economy. The town’s population hovered around 1,000 persons from 1800-1900 (“Bevölkerungsentwicklung…”), before spiking significantly with the opening of the hydroelectric plant in 1902 (“Kraftwerke Beznau”). The opening of the gas turbine plant in 1948 and the Beznau plant in 1969 (“Kraftwerke Beznau”) also provided steady growth for the town, its population reaching at 3,380 persons in 1970 (“Bevölkerungsentwicklung…”). The population has since continued to grow albeit at a much slower rate, with the population reaching 3,724 in 2011 (“Bevölkerungsentwicklung...”). The town’s population growth may be attributed, in part, to the availability of jobs at Beznau: the nuclear plant offers approximately 500 (Arnal) of the town’s 1,800 jobs (“The Community of Döttingen”). Nearly a third of the people in the surrounding area are currently working at Beznau, which likely influences the local community’s opinion of the plant (Arnal). The interdependent relationship between residents and Axpo likely contributes to the apparent scarcity of local objections.

Because Beznau is responsible for much of the town’s employment, the Swiss government’s planned phase-out of nuclear power will likely have serious economic repercussions in Döttingen. Anne-Katherin Arnal of Axpo explained that operators at the nuclear plant work with such specialized technology that it will not be possible for them to simply transfer to another plant when Beznau is closed. Additionally, because Switzerland intends to decommission all five of its nuclear plants, employees will face difficulties in finding employment at a nuclear facility at all unless they are willing to undergo a major relocation. Axpo seems aware of the negative impacts that Switzerland’s impending energy policy will have locally. Arnal explained that the improvements in the Beznau complex are not only being performed to comply with new regulations, but in the hopes that infrastructure enhancements will reassure the public of the safety of nuclear energy (Arnal).

The Impact of International Nuclear Incidents

While there has never been a major accident at any of Switzerland’s operational nuclear facilities (“Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors”), public concern about the safety of nuclear plants is not unfounded. Two major nuclear incidents have been responsible for much of the negative global perception of nuclear energy over the past twenty-five years; the accidents at the Chernobyl and Fukushima power plants are frequently cited in arguments regarding the dangers of nuclear reactors (“Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors”).

On April 25, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet-controlled Ukraine underwent a catastrophic meltdown and explosion, emitting large quantities of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The incident was caused by a flawed reactor design and by poorly-trained personnel, and it resulted in the largest uncontrolled radioactive release ever recorded for a civilian operation (“Nuclear Power in Switzerland”). Approximately thirty people died from acute radiation exposure, and more than five million people across Eastern Europe were exposed to increased levels of radiation due to the airborne radioactive material released in the explosion. Thyroid cancer rates increased across Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine, and the economic impacts of the contamination were felt across Europe. (“Nuclear Power in Switzerland”). In spite of the global outcry following the disaster, Switzerland’s nuclear policy remained largely unaffected (see Table 1.1).

Year Initiative For Against Result
1979 Nuclear safety Unavailable Unavailable Rejected
1984 No additional plants to be built 45% 55% Rejected
1990 Ten-year moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants 54.5% 45.5% Passed
1990 Phase out nuclear power 47% 53% Rejected
2000 Green tax for support of solar energy 31% 67% Rejected
2003 Nuclear power phase-out 41.6% 58.4% Rejected
2003 Extend 1990 moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants 33.7% 66.3% Rejected

Table 1.1: Swiss referenda on nuclear energy
Of note is the 1990 political referendum, which took place four years after the nuclear incident in Chernobyl. The ten-year moratorium on constructing new nuclear plants was the first anti-nuclear policy to pass since the inception of nuclear energy in Switzerland. In the 2003 referendum, voters elected not to extend the moratorium introduced in 1990. Notably, this referendum occurred before the nuclear incident in Fukushima (in 2011). Since the Fukushima disaster, another nuclear energy referendum has been prompted by petition. This referendum probably will occur in 2014 and will affect the pacing of the nuclear energy phase-out.

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the east coast of Japan, generating a tsunami that flooded the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant and disabled the emergency power and cooling systems. The damaged reactors released radioactive material into the surrounding air and water, resulting in a Level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale: the most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster. The incident released 10-30% as much radiation as Chernobyl, and although prompt evacuations and clean-up efforts resulted in no loss of life or associated illness from radiation exposure, public faith in the safety of nuclear power faltered around the world (Strickland).

In May 2011, as a direct reaction to the Fukushima disaster, the anti-nuclear organization Smiling Sun arranged a protest in front of Beznau. Over 20,000 people attended the event, making it the largest demonstration against nuclear power in Switzerland in a quarter century. Subsequently, the Swiss Green Party collected 109,000 signatures in support of a people’s initiative requiring caps on the lifetimes of existing nuclear power plants in Switzerland, an idea that was later incorporated into the 2050 Energy Strategy (“Smiling Sun”).

In November of 2012, the Green Party filed a petition calling to accelerate the pace of the nuclear energy phase-out so that all plants are shut down by 2029, twenty-one years earlier than the date projected by the 2050 Energy Strategy. Once again the Fukushima disaster was cited as their motivation. By January of 2013, the petition had secured enough signatures to merit a referendum. This referendum has not yet occurred, but if it passes, it will shorten the timeframe for identifying alternative energy sources (“Swiss to Vote…”).

Of note in this table is the 1990 political referendum, which took place four years after the nuclear incident in Chernobyl. The ten-year moratorium on constructing new nuclear plants was the first anti-nuclear policy to have passed since the introduction of nuclear energy in Switzerland. In the 2003 referendum, voters elected not to extend the moratorium that had been introduced in 1990; notably, this referendum occurred before the nuclear incident in Fukushima in 2011. Since the Fukushima disaster, another nuclear energy referendum has been prompted by petition. This referendum will occur in 2013 or 2014 and will affect the pacing of the nuclear energy phase-out.

Public Relations Efforts at Beznau

When discussing community opposition towards the introduction of a nuclear facility, the phrase “Not in My Backyard”(NIMBY) is commonplace. NIMBY refers to situations in which people may support certain land uses, but are not always willing to accept controversial development in close proximity to their homes (Agarwal). Several instances of the NIMBY mindset in the context of the nuclear power industry can be found. In Nevada, for instance, President Bush had approved a plan to store nuclear waste inside a mountain, but the state’s governor vetoed the plan (Kanter). Similarly, when Poland announced that it was considering a site 150 miles from the German border for the construction of a nuclear power plant, German citizens submitted 50,000 objections to the construction in just over a week (Wiener).

The presence of NIMBY attitudes often mean that it is far easier to build further nuclear facilities on pre-existing nuclear sites, because residents have already accepted and normalized the risks associated with its proximity (Parkhill, et. al.). In 2007, a study was conducted among American adults not employed by power companies and living within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant to gauge the prevalence of the NIMBY attitude in these areas. Of the respondents, 86% reported that they believed their local plants to be safe, and 71% said they would feel comfortable with an additional reactor being added to the current nuclear plant site (“US Nuclear Neighbors Not NIMBY”). In a 2009 study, 88% of respondents said they believed that their plants are safe, and 76% would support the addition of a new reactor (“Third Biennial…”). An example closer to Switzerland can be found in Finland, where plans to store waste in a tunnel at Olkiluoto have been generally unopposed by residents who enjoy the benefits associated with living near a nuclear plant, such as employment opportunities and tax revenue (Kanter). These examples of nuclear energy being accepted on the local scale demonstrate that it is possible to foster positive relationships between nuclear power plants and host communities.

Energy production industries often work to mitigate NIMBY attitudes to the best of their abilities, and Axpo, the company that operates the Beznau nuclear power plant, has utilized several strategies to foster a positive relationship with the plant’s surrounding community. A simple but significant way in which positive relations are maintained is through employment, as almost a third of the jobs in Döttingen are directly connected to the nuclear facility (Arnal).

Axpo also invests in public outreach efforts to minimize NIMBY attitudes. In the 1970s, the company constructed a visitor’s center to present its work to the public (Arnal); today’s center includes an interactive, free-admission museum describing Axpo’s energy-generating programs (“Axporama”). The company offers free guided tours to both the museum and the nuclear plant itself, complete with models and demonstrations that emphasize the productivity and safety of the energy complex (“Axporama”). Furthermore, the company grounds include a children’s playground, and visitors are provided with complimentary refreshments during their tour.

Although Swiss referenda show that Switzerland intends to eliminate its nuclear energy program – a response that has derailed plans for a third reactor at Beznau – Axpo is currently in the process of upgrading the site’s infrastructure to comply with many post-Fukushima regulations (Arnal). In reaction to the delay in the emergency response at Fukushima caused by entrapment of and damage to fire engines (Strickland), the Swiss Office of Energy now requires that the facilities housing fire engines at nuclear energy plants be earthquake-assured; Axpo is currently complying with this policy change by constructing a new engine house. The failure of emergency cooling systems were identified as a major factor in the Fukushima meltdown, so Axpo will install several additional emergency engines to power its cooling pumps as well. These projects are currently underway, along with other security improvements that will cost a combined two million Swiss francs (Arnal). However, the 2050 Energy Strategy’s policy on nuclear power still stands, and it appears that Beznau will be decommissioned in spite of Axpo’s active efforts to inspire public trust in its nuclear facilities.

Predictions for the Future of the Swiss Energy Economy

Switzerland's first step to compensating for the loss of energy from nuclear production is to reduce overall energy consumption. Approximately 25% of the original demand is to be eliminated by federal administration buildings and state-sponsored industries before 2020 (Jorio). A number of cities have reduced their energy demand through projects like replacing traditional streetlights with LEDs, developing smart grids, and utilizing roof space for solar installations (“Nuclear Energy”).

New renewable sources (solar, wind, biofuel, and biogas) are responsible for about 2% of Switzerland’s overall energy production. It is in this 2% margin that Switzerland has been focusing its attention and development (“Energy Sources”). Two technologies of great interest are solar and wind energy.

Roger Nordmann, Social Democratic parliamentarian and president of Swissolar, the national association of solar energy producers, stated that “solar energy will be able to supply 20% of the need” (Jorio). To encourage use of solar energy, the energy department is considering the removal of the permit requirement for the installation of personal solar panels in homes (Jorio).

In contrast to this political optimism, the public is often less accepting of renewable energy sources. After the government announced plans to establish a wind farm in the canton Jura that would supply 40,000 people with electricity, the canton blocked the project, arguing that the project would reduce property values because of interference with the skyline aesthetics and unwanted noise from the turbines (Jorio). Despite this opposition, support for wind energy can be found. SwissInfo cites an interview with Isabelle Chevalley, a parliamentarian and member of the Green Party. “We found the political courage to get out of nuclear power,” she says. “Now we need the courage to impose the use of renewable energies. Having to find 40% of the electricity is not something that bothers me. Solar, wind and hydropower are going to be the energy backbone of Switzerland,” she declared in a 2012 interview (Jorio).

While Chevalley is confident that nuclear power can be struck from the Swiss energy landscape and replaced with renewable energy, some experts seem less optimistic. Martin Jermann of Switzerland’s Paul Sherrer Institute said that he is hopeful for the development of future technologies in the field of energy but is skeptical about the transition given the limits of existing alternative energy sources (Jermann). A representative from Axpo also expressed her doubt regarding nuclear energy alternatives: “I don’t know if really, in the future, [the Swiss] will vote against nuclear power” (Arnal). This sentiment illustrates yet another implication of the uncertainty surrounding Switzerland’s future energy supply – with a self-imposed deadline rapidly approaching, the country may find itself limited in its ability to prepare for and adapt to the coming changes in the industry.


Energy resources shape agriculture, transportation, technology, and almost all other elements of modern life by helping people control and adapt to their environment (“Energy Sources”). Because the provision of energy is of such great importance, many communities have embraced energy production as a tool for growth. As the economy and identity of these communities have become intertwined with the energy industry, it is necessary to investigate the localized implications of national nuclear energy sentiments and global nuclear events. This case study aimed to elucidate these effects in Döttingen, Switzerland and comment on the implications of national energy policy for this town.

The NIMBY attitude does not seem pervasive in the microcosm of Döttingen, Switzerland. It is possible that this acceptance is derived from normalization of the risks of the plant, as was suggested in Parkhill’s 2009 study on the NIMBY mindset. A comprehensive study on public perception of the plant was not feasible for this research group, but would provide more objective insight into the presence or absence of the NIMBY mindset in Döttingen.

Based on the employment demographics in the town, we believe the NIMBY attitude in Döttingen is minimized in the community, to a large extent, for the same reason as in Olkiluoto, Finland – an economic interdependence of the nuclear facility and its local employees. Axpo’s efforts to provide recreational and educational services to the public and invest in security improvements may be relevant as well, but due to limitations in contacting local residents, we do not have sufficient evidence to determine the effect of these efforts on the public’s perception of Beznau. Future research assessing the effectiveness of Axpo’s public relations efforts in Döttingen may prove helpful to the company as it seeks ways to reassure the public of Beznau’s safety, even in the shadow of the coming government-mandated decommissioning.

Through collected readings and conversations with representatives from Axpo and the Paul Scherrer Institute, it is clear that Switzerland has a number of difficult questions it will need to answer in the near future. For now, there is no single comprehensive energy plan to compensate for the energy loss created by the absence of nuclear power. While green technologies currently seem to be the most promising options in terms of efficiency and environmental safety, the politics involved are highly complex. Research into energy technology is expensive and time-consuming, and even if the government were to settle on one specific energy alternative, the necessary infrastructure and materials may not be able to be mobilized until after the nuclear phase-out is complete. Because so many of these new technologies are also seen as controversial due to their costs and aesthetics, the current gridlock surrounding their implementation does not bode well for the ambitious timeframe Switzerland has established for itself. The Swiss Federal Office of Energy and the voting public will need to work together in order to meet their goals and ensure that the country’s energy resources will be secure. For now, on both the local and the national levels, the future of Swiss energy remains uncertain.

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Photograph of Daniella Damiano, Hanna Herdegen, Erika Lower, Grace Mulholland, and Cameron Sumpter

Daniella Damiano, Hanna Herdegen, Erika Lower, Grace Mulholland, and Cameron Sumpter contributed to “Contextualizing Nuclear Power in Döttingen, Switzerland.” Daniella is a Business Information Technology major. Hanna is an Animal and Poultry Sciences major, Erika is a Humanities, Science, and Environment major. Grace is a Biological Sciences major. And Cameron is a Business Information Technology major. The group conducted their research on Swiss nuclear policy as part of the Presidential Global Scholars program in Spring 2013.