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At the time of the Cold War, Switzerland took the danger of a nuclear attack very seriously: in 1963 it was decided that all people in the country should have bunkers in which they could find protection in the event of a nuclear attack. But how well is the country prepared for a possible nuclear disaster today?

This content was published on November 29, 2017 - 12:00

Julie worked as a radio reporter for the BBC and independent radio stations in the UK before joining Schweizer Radio International, the predecessor of swissinfo.ch, as a producer. After attending film school, Julie worked as an independent filmmaker before joining swissinfo.ch in 2001.

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"In view of the latest threats, such as those from North Korea, are there any suggestions for a revision of the legislation on shelters?"

Where are the threats coming from?

North Korea's regime in Pyongyang is trying to develop a missile with a nuclear warhead that could reach the mainland of the United States. 50 years after the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed in 1968, there are still around 10,000 nuclear weapons around the world, 93% of them belong to the USA and RussiaExternal link. At the same time, a nuclear escalation can occur between India and PakistanExternal link cannot be excluded.

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This is the question asked by Alex, who responded to the invitation to our readers to let us know what things they would like to know about Switzerland. Alex isn't the only one fearing a nuclear attack. Last October, former US Secretary of Defense William Perry said at a conference of the Luxembourg International Forum for Nuclear Disaster PreventionExternal Link that the threat of a nuclear attack was at its highest level since the Cold War.

If Switzerland were to be attacked directly with a nuclear weapon, there would undoubtedly be widespread devastation, as can be seen when detonating various types of virtual bombs on this interactive site from GoogleExterner Link. Experts seem to agree that you cannot prepare yourself for a direct hit, you just have to react.

But what would happen if an atomic bomb were detonated elsewhere in the world, and as a result a radioactive cloud were to sweep over Switzerland? It seems that the small Alpine country is prepared for such a scenario, as well as for a possible accident in a Swiss nuclear power plant. The reaction would be similar.

Emergency drill for a nuclear accident

Pascal Aebischer from the Federal Office for Civil ProtectionExterner Link told swissinfo.ch that there was no perceived threat of a nuclear war that could affect Switzerland. For this reason, "in the area of ​​civil protection, no specific measures are being considered" for this specific aspect. The civil protection measures are more geared towards "disasters and emergencies".

One area of ​​the Federal Office for Civil Protection that deals with such disasters and emergencies is the specialist unit for extraordinary events, the National Alarm Center External Link (NAZ), another the Spiez External Link laboratory, the Federal Institute for NBC protection (atomic, biology, Chemistry), which has measurement and emergency teams that would be deployed in the event of major nuclear or radiological incidents in Switzerland.

Every two years, an emergency exercise under the direction of the Federal Office for Civil Protection takes place in the vicinity of one of Switzerland's five nuclear power plants. Various other authorities are involved in these exercises to cope with a serious incident, including the Federal Office for Meteorology and Climatology, MeteoSwiss and the Spiez Laboratory. This year the emergency exercise took place in the vicinity of the Mühleberg nuclear power plant in the canton of Bern.

A nationwide network of sirens and shelters

There are over 7000 sirens in Switzerland to warn the population of various threats and dangers. This also includes nuclear accidents. The sirens are tested on the first Wednesday in February each year. The "general alarm" external link sounds when there is a possible danger to the population. For the population, this general alarm means that you should turn on the radio and follow the instructions of the authorities.

Jean-Marc Fellay from ORCOCExterner Link (organe communale de conduite), a local emergency organization of nine municipalities in French-speaking Switzerland, told swissinfo.ch what would happen if the alarm went off. "Depending on the nature of the incident, people would be asked to stay at home and close the windows and doors, or instructed to go straight to a shelter."

People might also be asked to swallow iodine tablets. As a precautionary measure in the event of a nuclear incident, these tablets are distributed every ten years to households, schools, companies etc. within a 50 km radius of the nuclear power plants in Switzerland. If these tablets are taken on time and in the correct dose, they prevent radioactive iodine, which is absorbed through the air, from building up in the thyroid gland.

It is assumed that municipalities, cantons and civil protection organizations would have time to stock them up with water and food in the event of a nuclear incident in which shelters would have to be sought out. In addition, the population is advised to also stock up on emergency supplies themselves. Details can be found in this emergency plan brochure External link from the authorities.

What is unique is that Switzerland has enough nuclear sanctuaries for the entire population if necessary. The right to these shelters is based on a constitutional article, the implementation of which is stipulated in a federal law as follows:

"A shelter must be provided for every inhabitant in a timely manner near their place of residence."

"If there are too few shelter areas in a community, the owner of a residential building must create and equip shelter rooms when it is built. (...)"

(Articles 45 and 46 of the Federal Act on Civil Protection and Civil Protection)

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If new houses or apartments are built today without sheltered areas, in practice the respective owner has to make a replacement contribution to the community in order to guarantee the residents a place in a civil defense system.

Jean-Marc Fellay showed swissinfo.ch the inside of a protective bunker in the village of Domdidier in the canton of Friborg. This shelter is reserved for a 100-person civil defense unit and can also accommodate up to 132 people.

After the evacuation

"If a radioactive cloud were to move over us, the ground would be contaminated afterwards," explained Jean-Marc Fellay. "The idea is that you would stay in a shelter for up to five days and come out when it's safe again."

But what would happen if the soil was still toxic after five days? "I can imagine that the only answer is to go away. To a place that is not contaminated," Fellay told swissinfo.ch.

But neighboring countries could also be affected by a radioactive cloud, as was the case after the reactor accident in Chernobyl in Ukraine in April 1986, when such a contaminated cloud moved across Central Europe. Even 20 years after the disaster, Switzerland still suffered from partially elevated levels of radioactivity. The Federal Office of Public Health assumes that 200 additional deaths from cancer can be expected in Switzerland as a result of the Chernobyl accident.

Finally, Jean-Marc Fellay declared: "We have never had to carry out an evacuation on a large scale, but unfortunately it is something to think about."

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