At the Source: Where 13 % of Swiss Electricity is Created

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On our way in to the plant with my girlfriends

A friendly nuclear engineer I met at the screening for the movie New Fire made the off-hand mention that he might be able to give a tour of his nuclear plant, Gösgen – an offer I held onto like a leech! Yesterday it happened. It was a bit of a walk to get there from the Däniken train station, but the day was sunny and the place was not hard to find… we just followed the source of the clouds.

It is sort of amazing to realize that the little dome (to the left of the hyperboloid cooling tower) is the source of so much energy, that the mere waste heat from that process continually vaporises water enough to create decent-sized clouds.

Well at the entrance to the plant, we were met by my nuclear contact, and he handed us over to the great care of our tour guide for the day, Heinz, who had grown up playing on the greens around the power plant.

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Enter the obligatory jokes, “Look, even the trees are dead here!!” (For posteriority, let it be stated that it’s January)

It turns out that the entrance building of the nuclear plant is actually a museum about electricity generation, with roomfuls of large models, charts, videos, and fancy high-tech gadgets enlightening the visitor about types of energy, the Swiss grid, handling of nuclear reactions and fuel, as well as about things like the cosmic background radiation.

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Heinz enlightened us about the water and steam circulations around the reactor (in red)

What we learned about the redundancies in the safety systems around the reactor were pretty impressive. Not only the four-fold pressure-triggered passive cooling-water tank systems, and the four layers of casings around the reactor building (able to withstand airplane strikes and bombings), but also the back-up tanks of cooling water in case of water-shortage (calculated for cases of drought or earthquakes shifting the course of rivers), as well as emergency access to groundwater stores… in connection to a complete duplicate of their nuclear operation-room.

Having that kind of backup, according to our guide, would have made the crucial difference at Fukushima, and allowed it to weather the tsunami without an accident (note, luckily the situation at Fukushima lead to very low levels of radioactive leakage and no deaths from radiation – read more here or watch a recent trip report here).

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Uranium in its various forms. One of the small black pellets on the left is enough to provide a person with all their energy needs for a year.

There were also no less than six emergency backup diesel generators housed in three separate buildings, to be used only in a case of a general black-out, loss of own electricity generation, as well as a failure of the plant’s exclusive connection to a waterpower plant (again calculating for grid malfunctions or earthquakes shifting the course of rivers).

One of the highlights of the exhibition was seeing a proper Cloud Chamber in action. It was a glass-covered tabletop, containing a layer of supersaturated alcohol vapor – which acts like a live screen for detecting the passage of ionizing radiation, particularly muons, aplha (helium atoms) and beta (electrons or positrons) particles. The alpha radiation looks like thick cloudy puffs, while muons and beta particles show up as thin lines, that sometimes get deflected by collisions. These are particles bombarding us all the time from the cosmic background radiation, so there were lot of trails every second. They also had a radioactive part of an old gas-lamp to generate extra particles with to demonstrate even more alpha radiation, like here below:

 

Such a detector inside the reactor dome would be pretty quiet, however, because the building’s several casings effectively shield it from background radiation.

We had to leave most of our belongings behind at the entry to the plant proper, with airport-like security controls, and unfortunately camera’s were also out of the question – luckily there are some official photos available at their own site (check out the changing light-show-on-the-plant on the main page). Our tour took us through the operation room (Kommandoraum, the one with lot of windows next to the reactor dome), the turbine room (Maschinenhaus, the large windowless building between the tower and the dome), the cooling tower, around the reactor dome and the back-up power buildings.

Gösgen overview

Source: Kernkraftwerk Gösgen / BE – WIE Nr 9721, 31.08.2010

Seeing a cooling tower up close was pretty cool! The constant monsoon condense-rain (23 Celsius, or about 73 F) at the base of the tower (where it’s open, see the little criss-cross structures that are about five+ meters tall) was impressive, as was the tropical atmosphere in the turbine room, whose deafening noise required earplugs.

If you look carefully, you can also see a little horizontal stripe along the shadow side of the cooling tower? I’d love to wrangle a permission somehow to climb those tiny stairs and to the top of the 150 m tower… the natural next step after climbing several hundred meters of mountainside on Via Ferrata routes. 😉 We heard that someone had once actually proposed to their wife on top of that thing! Another story was about one somewhat survival-averse paraglider who was flying over the tower and was in danger of crashing because of the turbulence from rising vapour – which, btw, is simply water straight from the neighboring river Aare being turned into clouds.

Gösgen

Big thanks to the great friendly staff of Gösgen-Däniken, we had a wonderful tour! Swiss people have a lot to be proud of in their nuclear plants, which are built with rigorous safety and back-up mechanisms in mind. Swiss electricity is also very green, right now fourth greenest in Europe, as you can see from the summary statistics of the latest year at Energy for Humanity​’s Climate Leadership Report or at the live stats on Electricitymap.

This is thanks to lot of hydro in the mountains – almost 60% share – with nuclear power to complete the picture with its 33% share of electricity generation. This is unfortunately down from near 40 % from a few years earlier, due to political pressure to phase out nuclear, following Germany’s anti-nuclear wave. You can see the Swiss stats in detail here. I’m really hoping the people and politicians here, like in Sweden and France, will change their minds about a nuclear phase-out after Germany’s warning example of failed decarbonisation efforts.

But, let’s not let all that data get in the way of my TRUE motivation for writing about nuclear energy – which many readers have already guessed* at (*ahum, loudly proclaimed). Heinz did, after all, supply us with a generous helping of #NuclearShillChocolate on our way out.

I did it all for the SHILL CHOCOLATE

This was no bland generic milk chocolate either, but good quality Swiss stuff with a subtle croquant touch. Delicious enough to change anyone’s mind 😉

So long, Gösgen, and thanks for all the chocolate!

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For a more about why I became interested in nuclear power, please have a look at my articles on climate and energy here. Even better idea, however, is to read the short, evidence-dense book Climate Gamble or browse the graphs in their blog. If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:

  1. Be respectful.
  2. Back up your claims with evidence.

About Thoughtscapism

Cell Biologist, volunteer science communicator, and fiction writer.
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6 Responses to At the Source: Where 13 % of Swiss Electricity is Created

  1. Barbara Patterson says:

    I hope this question will reach you. You are definitely causing me to rethink my position on nuclear power, but I still would like to know more about long term storage of spent fuel. I live in the U.S. where I’m sure you know, it has been impossible to reach agreement on what to do with ours. What do other countries do? Can it truly be safely stored for the thousands of years required to make it ‘safe’? I hope you can address this issue at some point.

    Sincerely, Barbara Patterson

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Barbara,

      Thanks so much for reading and being interested even in topics as controversial as nuclear power! I understand very well that you have concerns about the handling of spent nuclear fuel, and this was my biggest issue with nuclear power as well. I used to think that the problem and risks of storage of such radioactive material was just too dangerous if it ever got out.

      The US situation for sure is a frustrating one, they should just build a proper underground repository and be done with it, haha. I’m afraid what’s causing problems there is what was my biggest stumbling step before too – that I had very strong (albeit vague) ideas about what nuclear waste was, what risks there were, and felt that it was imperative to oppose it because of that. This is why most people would react emotionally and reject the idea of repository being built annywhere near them.

      I actually spent some time earlier in the autumn, trying to collect a number of the best resources that I could find on the different aspects about nuclear waste, and wrote about them here: https://thoughtscapism.com/2017/11/04/nuclear-waste-ideas-vs-reality/

      I hope you find the article useful, and find good resources of further reading in areas that especially concern you. I am happy to answer any further questions you might have as well. For me at least, the process of learning more was a lengthy one, not something that could immediately turn that emotional switch that I had grown up with, where any mention of nuclear waste would bring up alarm bells. But gradually by examining my gut reactions and seeing how they related to the best data I could find, and even testimonies of friends who had studied storage of nuclear waste, I found I was able to let go of a huge proportion of that fear that seem so irrevocably connected to (especially nuclear) radioactive waste. I’ve now come to view that as an area where very good avenues of safe handling actually exist, to a point that I realize it is strange why we talk so much about nuclear waste and so little of waste from other energy forms – it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but needs to be compared relevantly with pros and cons of different choices.

      Thanks for your comment! I’m always so happy when I have readers like you who are sincerely interested.
      Hope you have a great day,
      Iida/Thoughtscapism

      Like

    • Hi Barbara
      I just thought I’d add a few words to Iida’s reply and the excellent linked article, thoroughly recommended, by observing that nuclear waste is already very safely stored in the US in spent fuel casks. These are good for at least a hundred years and take up the space of a small parking lot at each reactor site.

      The amount is important. In industrial terms, it is a very small waste stream, and the plant lifetime supply of uranium, which becomes spent fuel, is far lower than the amount of construction materials for a power plant.

      The decision on a permanent repository was made in due fashion by Congress in 1987 – Yucca Mountain – and after much investigation and even more political delay, the design was declared safe (in 2014) , despite the incredibly tough standard used.

      Like

    • Robert Budd says:

      Hi Barbara,
      I’ve made 180 degree turn on my thoughts about the environmental effects of nuclear energy. 25 years ago I organized many RE advocacy events that invariably ended with a German fellow offering a sermon on the evils of nuclear. Certainly the waste aspect was a large part of that.
      More recently I’ve had much opportunity to watch the spent fuel and waste management process as we have proposal for both in our area in the form of deep geological repositories. After looking at risks and the quality of the burial site I have no environmental concerns, particularly when I look at the very low emissions intensity of Ontario’s grid and see the negative impacts from large wind developments here.
      This is Canada’s plan. Its slow and methodical but very respectful of community wishes. Honestly I’m impressed with the process so far. Wherever ends up its imperative the host community is supportive and site integrity is met. https://www.nwmo.ca/

      Like

  2. Congratulations with the chocolate, Iida, a Swiss nuclear company should know where to get the good stuff 😉

    I congratulate the Swiss with this big source of clean energy with its array of redundant safety systems, but can’t help wondering how much of these safety costs would have been unnecessary if the world would switch to a regulation no longer based on the combination of LNT and ALARA?

    In my experience, the people working in the nuclear sector are deeply immersed into the LNT+ALARA doctrine. They tend to consider it as ‘just a way to make things as safe as possible’. The interesting thing is that antinuclear groups often use the same vocabulary, but then use LNT to prove that ‘it can never be safe enough’.

    I quite agree to Wade Allison who clearly demonstrates that we should scratch LNT, and change the ALARA to AHARS: As High As Reasonably Safe. He recently wrote this twopager for online reference: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322665782_To_know_or_not_to_know_the_nuclear_question.

    We may not have to take it as far as Wade Allison does. Last summer I had a long conversation with a radiation scientist who works within the field. He told me that he would not worry at all at being exposed to 10mSv (10.000 uSv). I asked him how much money that would save us. He told me it would be billions.

    I wonder what the people at Gösgen-Däniken would think about that?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jim Baerg says:

    BTW are you aware of the book
    _The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear_ by Petr Beckmann?
    It was first published in 1976 & details just how much more dangerous every other energy source is than nuclear. It’s too bad he liars were louder.

    Like

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