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Swiss nuclear bomb

October 9, 2010

The Swiss nuclear bomb.

Little did we know. Not even Tom Lehrer (“Who’s next? Alabama’s got the bomb!”) dreamt that Switzerland planned to build atomic bombs. At one time an Air Force general proposed that Switzerland might build 400 nuclear weapons, to be carried by 100 Mirage air planes, with a capacity to reach Moscow!

At the recent IPPNW World Congress at Basel we visited the historical museum of the town. The guide told us that only two weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima did a group from the Swiss government decide to begin a study of the possibilities of Switzerland to build nuclear weapons.

The work seems to have proceeded very slowly, but when the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 took place the Swiss planning for nuclear deterrence became more serious (ref 1, 2).

These plans were not only developed in meetings and in offices. Uranium was purchased and stored and reactors ordered. The USA offered reactors to a highly reduced price to avoid that Switzerland bought them from the Soviet Union. However, the Swiss government seems to have been unwilling to go any further if other countries than the original four nuclear weapon states did not get the bomb. It would be of interest to read more about these discussions.

The history of the Swiss nuclear weapons program is long and many pages are still missing from the history (1, 2). It appears that the rapidly increasing costs for the weapon carriers, that means the Mirage airplanes, was a problem for the military. The cost of a uranium enrichment plant was too high for the federal budget. The Air Force did however discuss the possible building of 400 charges and to test nuclear weapons in an uninhabited area of the country (1)!

A serious accident in a research reactor causing a partial meltdown occurred in 1969 (1). The reactor was located underground which contained the radioactivity. This accident strengthened the opinion against the nuclear weapons program. Switzerland signed the Non-proliferation treaty, NPT, in 1969 but it the country did not declare its uranium stores until five years later. That facility had been known by very few people.

The nuclear weapons program had some similarities to that of another neutral and nonaligned country, Sweden. The cost of the program was a major obstacle in both countries. The strategic discussion seems to have been rather superficial in both. That the nuclear weapons would not increase the security during the Cold War was not realized. It was taken as a matter of course that military strength gave security. It was not commonly understood that nuclear weapons require a new way of thinking.

It seems that the public opinion against the nuclear weapons program was less active in Switzerland than in Sweden. One reason could be that the women in Switzerland were much less involved in politics. The anti-nuclear campaign in Sweden was to a large extent a women’s movement.

When the NPT entered into power both countries had to give up the nuclear option. However, it was as late as in 1988 that the commission on nuclear weapons questions was terminated in Switzerland, officially ending the program (3)

It is important to study the reasons why certain countries gave up their nuclear weapons program while other persisted.  The Nuclear weapons archive (3) summarizes the decisions but gives little information about the driving forces, especially in the society. Has the public opinion regarding nuclear weapons been important in these countries, in the same way it was in the USA (4), in Kazakhstan or the Ukraine? These questions have been the subject of several studies in recent years. The book by E.C. Hymans ((5) is the best known. The dissertation by Ulrika Möller (6) evaluates the situation of four different countries, making her studies quite valuable. The time has come to review these various studies, trying to understand the importance of reason and sentiment as forces in the nuclear arms race, and nuclear disarmament.

Today Switzerland is one of the countries which take a strong stand for a nuclear weapons free world. The talk given by the Federal Foreign Minister of Switzerland, Micheline Calmy-Rey (7) at the IPPNW Congress was an inspired and serious call for nuclear abolition. Switzerland has together with Norway taken a place in the disarmament policy which Sweden left vacant.

  1. Stussi-Lauterberg J: Historical outline on the question of Swiss nuclear armament. Swiss government report, April 1966.
  2. Edwards B: Swiss planned a nuclear bomb. New Scientist 1966.
  3. Nuclear weapons archive. 7.4 States Formerly Possessing or Pursuing Nuclear Weapons.
  4. Wittner Lawrence S: The struggle against the bomb. Vol. I-III. Stanford Univ. Press 1997-2003
  5. Hymans J E C: The psychology of nuclear proliferation. Identity, emotions and foreign policy. Cambridge Univ. Press 2006
  6. Möller U: The prospects of security cooperation. A matter of relative gains or recognition.  Göteborg 2007 Dept. Political Science Göteborg University
  7. Calmy-Rey M:  The future of nuclear disarmament: A Swiss perspective. IPPNW World Congress Basel Schweiz 2010. ippnw.2010.org, then Plenary Documents

Gunnar Westberg

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