Switzerland and the „bunker mentality“

There are two things that usually get visitor’s attention when they arrive in Switzerland for the first time, and that for Swiss are so common place, that they don’t even take notice of it: no, I’m not talking about chocolate and neither about watches.

But honestly, who needs a gun at home? And who would want to live in a bunker?

Well, if you don’t have an answer to this, then read on, because I got mine last week, after more than thirty-nine years of wondering and guessing (this as a side note: so far the best answer was that guns are meant to defend the country, but since no one would remember how to use them, Switzerland also has the bunkers: the place to hide from the enemy.)

I can tell you from my own experience that it actually is quite odd to grow up among those bunkers. And the fact that they exist is not yet the worst thing; we actually also manage them. Given that I am one of those who decided to leave the army after a while (yes, partly due to the fact that I was one of those who DID NOT manage to remember how to use the gun) I had to serve another corps of the Swiss defense system- the “civil service”, an institution dedicated to the protection of society in case of catastrophes. And part of the duties of this institution incorporates the administration of bunkers. One can easily imagine that in order for the bunkers to be ready in case of a possible catastrophe (i.e. nuclear war), they have to be checked frequently. If not, some people – “bad” people do even exist in Switzerland! – misuse it to store their belongings or, what’s worse, use them as a private cellar bar (we love bunkers, even under normal circumstances). Given the strong walls, they also make a very good room for private jam sessions.
Anyway, the routine checks are only part of it. The other part is to administer beds (some exist only virtually, on paper. Others really do exist physically, waiting to be occupied). What for? Well, imagine there would be a nuclear war. Of course people want to sleep somewhere; no one can stay awake all day long, less in a dark bunker without any daylight; therefore the management and the counting of beds. With eight hours sleep per person per day a bed can be shared by three persons. Bunkers are bunkers, not hotel rooms and neighbors will all become friends, no matter what – at least that is what psychologists tell us. Anyway, so theoretically, there should be some 2.7 Mio dusty beds in bunkers in Switzerland; waiting for the worst.

Ah yes, I wanted to talk about my childhood memories. Of course I always imagined how the world would look like after a nuclear war and even if I had no clue how that would be (that was before Chernobyl and no one had a clear picture), I instinctively knew that I would leave my virtual bed for two persons to share it twelve hours each. No way, I would hide in a bunker, despite the Swiss passport.

Back to the nuclear wars. Not long ago they seemed to be history, fortunately, but then, who knows. Maybe they are more current than we might hope and wish! Whereas North Korea seems to get very serious about the matter, Swiss citizens had their own little nuclear war last week.
There is this nuclear power plant “Mühleberg”, operating since 1972, under attack from citizens and NGOs for decades, subject to a forced shut-down due to the cession of the current licence. The long awaited end of a licence that was meant to bring this highly critical operation to a halt in June 2013. The power plant is the second oldest nuclear power plant in Switzerland and one of the oldest in the world. It has had a rather ambiguous start due to several incidents before going into full operation. Throughout its operation it was subject to several security stops and various “minor” (can anything of that kind be “minor”?) incidents. Concerns about the operation of “Mühleberg” are certainly justified, but this is only part of the story. What should really give room for questions, is the following: in 1990, soon after the tragedy in Chernobyl, after some anti-nuclear power protests and several previously failed attempts a popular initiative accepted by the majority of the Swiss people finally resulted in a ten year moratorium that wouldn’t allow the construction of any new nuclear power plants and that, instead, would force the Swiss government to invest in research and investigation for renewable energy. There needed to be an alternative to these ticking time bombs.
That was in the 1990s. At that time Switzerland was one of the leading countries in renewable energies. It had a lot of innovative SMEs that wanted to hop on the train towards a greener future. Everything was in place, the world was there to be saved….. everything seemed possible.

Twenty years later, in 2010, everything seemed to have changed. Switzerland now found itself at the bottom end in the list of countries dedicated to the use of renewable energy. A lack of support from the government, a forgiving and forgetting people, and the pressure that the operation licenses for the still working nuclear power plants were due to expire within the next few years made people to reconsider the topic. After all, they found that nuclear power had done little harm to society. Chernobyl lay twenty years back. Besides, they found that the accident probably happened due to technical inaccuracies under a then still communistic government – or maybe right in the transition, without any government to watch at all. That was Russia and in the late 1980s. Nuclear power plants in Switzerland and in the year 2010 were different: safe, as everything in Switzerland and reliable as a Swiss watch.
Credible lies from politicians and industry did the rest: the Swiss decided that nuclear power was not the past, but the future. The moratorium had expired and Switzerland needed electric power. So why not keep status quo and the nuclear power plants running?

In March 2011 the Fukushima disaster happened. Fukushima.  Japan. First world. A technologically advanced and reliable nation.
The Swiss quickly regained their memories. In May 2011 a crowd of 20’000 people gathered around the nuclear power plant “Beznau” (the other Swiss nuclear old-timer) to protest against its operation. Soon after, the Swiss (this time the government acted without waiting for the people to raise an initiative – after all, these procedures cost money) once again took the decision not to build any future nuclear power plants after the operation licenses of the existing once would have expired.
It needed a disaster in Japan to avoid another one in Switzerland. How sad.

And now this: Last week, a judge and member of the federal court, who had the final word in a case fought through all instances of Swiss justice decided to extend the license of the above discussed nuclear power plant “Mühleberg”.  Forget all the concerns. Forget the Swiss people’s decision. Forget the pride in the “direct democracy” and the popular vote. Money reigns – in Switzerland as elsewhere.
The judge, surprisingly as it might sound, decided to extend the license against the odds and against what seems to be legally correct. The operation of “Mühleberg” will not stop but continue. No, not for another five or ten years, not even forty years. That’s not enough. We don’t want any more discussions, not now, not in the future.
The judge granted a timely unrestricted operation…..”bis zum bittere Ändi – to the bitter end”, as we say in Swiss German.
As one can read in the article published by NZZ, “for him it had always been clear that “Mühleberg” would not been shut down.“

The same was probably the case for its operator, the energy industry as a whole, and also for the local government in Bern: being born in Switzerland and having spent a big deal of my life span in the canton of Bern, I was actually one of the lucky citizens, that in 2002 received a present form our local government: a box of Iodine pills for all citizens that lived close enough to “Mühleberg” and that in case of an accident would need to be protected. It was in addition to the gun and the bunker. Part three of the preventative measure against possible hazards.


Of course some of us were first of all confused and didn’t know if we had to take those drugs as a prophylaxis or in case of a nuclear disaster. Whereas there didn’t seem to be enough tablets for the former version, the size of the pills made it unlikely for them to be of big support at the incident itself (the blast wave might be too strong to hide behind the box). And maybe it was just a sign of comfort: better a box of drugs at hand than a shared bed that might be subject to misuse as a private bar and not ready when needed.

Coming to an end and back to what is currently going on in North Korea I think that the judge’s verdict, that now seems so unjustified, might one day even be celebrated as a bold decision (Similar to the “réduit” thinking of the Swiss government during WWII that earned its place in Swiss history. The idea to hide the people and the army in the mountains, where they could easier be defended, was brilliant indeed: who would want to fight for mountains, if everyone was heading for the Mediterranean to spend their holidays in the mild climate of southern Europe!?):
Didn’t evolution and Darwinism teach us, that adaption is the best strategy for survival?

Living close enough to a leaking nuclear power plant might be a hassle in the short-term but definitely turn out to be beneficial on the long-run. Being used to adapt to harsh conditions, Swiss citizens might not even need the Iodine-prophylaxis or the bunkers in the future: with a homeopathic dose of nuclear vaccine every day over the next twenty years, they should be fit enough to survive an “additional dose” of nuclear radiation at some point in the future.


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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3 Responses to Switzerland and the „bunker mentality“

  1. Pingback: Tempting nuclear power plants and how to solve the energy question | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

  2. blaubear says:

    Update: http://www.nzz.ch/aktuell/schweiz/atomkatastrophen-radius-fuer-jodtabletten-verteilung-auf-50-kilometer-ausgeweitet-1.18226691.
    As an answer to Fukushima the Swiss government has decided to enlarge the “iodine-zones” around nuclear power plants in Switzerland from 20km to 50km with the result that there are now 4.6 million out of the 8.0 million (58% instead of 1.2 million or 15%) citizens that get the “survival kit”.

    Not sure how safe they feel but quite impressive to see how easy it is to satisfy tax-payers. Free iodine-pills against another decade of a nuclear catastrophe threat seems like a cheap deal to me!?

  3. Pingback: Switzerland: tax system, environmental justice, and the right of some to be more equal than others | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

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