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Nuclear withdrawal was thanks to women, says former energy minister

Members of the Japanese Self-Defence Force pray for a victim on March 20, 2011. Keystone / Shuji Kajiyama

Having four women in Switzerland’s seven-person government played a key role in the decision to phase out nuclear energy ten years ago, according to Doris Leuthard, who was energy minister at the time of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima on March 11, 2011.

This content was published on March 5, 2021 - 15:50
Keystone-SDA/ts

In an interviewExternal link with Swiss newspaper Le Temps on Thursday, Leuthard said she would have had a hard time convincing men on the political right to abandon nuclear power.

“I think women are generally more sensitive to the environment and to the risks to which the population is exposed. When safety is at stake, they are willing to look at new solutions, even if it means paying a little more. They were more quickly convinced that we could opt for a new energy mix,” said Leuthard, who stepped down from the government at the end of 2018.

The three other female cabinet ministers at the time were Micheline Calmy-Rey and Simonetta Sommaruga from the left-wing Social Democratic Party and Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf from the centre-right Conservative Democratic Party.

Leuthard, from the centre-right Christian Democratic Party, admitted that she didn’t immediately realise the scale of the disaster at Fukushima.

“My first reaction was to say that that’s very far away from us, in Japan, in a country that deals seriously and professionally with events of this kind. I didn’t realise right away that it was a major disaster,” she told Le Temps.

Only gradually did it become clear how serious the disaster was and that Switzerland had to act. On March 14 the government imposed a moratorium on nuclear projects.

“It was a decision that had to be taken quickly because, at the time, we intended to replace the three oldest [nuclear] plants with a modern, new-generation facility. We had to carry out a new risk analysis and see whether we could maintain the nuclear option in our energy policy. We informed the owners of the Swiss power plants, who had submitted applications to build this new-generation facility. It was a difficult moment, as our decision could cause them significant damage. […] I must admit that I didn’t sleep very well for two nights.”

In the end Switzerland did decide in 2011 to phase out nuclear power, which supplies about a third of the country’s electricity production.

In 2017 Swiss voters endorsed a new energy law that aims to promote renewable energy by banning new nuclear power plants and reducing energy consumption.

In December 2019 the 47-year-old Mühleberg nuclear power plant near Bern was permanently switched off – the first of five Swiss nuclear power reactors to be decommissioned. The event was considered so important that viewers could follow the progress live on Swiss television.

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