Switzerland and weapons of mass destruction

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Switzerland had plans to build nuclear weapons during the Cold War. One month after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Swiss government started studying the possibility of building nuclear weapons, and would continue its nuclear program for 43 years until 1988.[1][2] It has since signed and ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.[3]

Swiss nuclear program

On June 8, 1946, the Study Commission for Nuclear Energy (SKA) was created by the Swiss government with the objective of studying the civil use of atomic energy and by secret order to also study the scientific and technical bases for building nuclear weapons.[4][5] The activity of this group was low and only slow progress was made, however the events the Cold War, especially the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1957, and the nuclear arms race of the mid-fifties provided new impetus however.[1][4][5] While his specific role is questioned, Dr. Paul Scherrer played an important role in the Swiss nuclear program.[5]

A top-secret commission, the "Study Commission for the Possible Acquisition of Own Nuclear Arms", was instituted by Head of General Staff, Louis de Montmollin with a meeting on 29 March 1957.[4][5] The aim of the commission was to give the Swiss Federal Council an orientation towards "the possibility of the acquisition of nuclear arms in Switzerland."[5] The recommendations of the commission were ultimately favorable,[4][5] and on 23 December 1958 the Federal Council instructed the Federal Military Department (EMD) to investigate the effects, the acquisition, the purchase and the manufacture of nuclear arms.[4] Efforts remained focused on study and planning rather than implementation however.[4]

In a referendum held in April 1962, the Swiss people rejected a proposal to ban nuclear weapons within the country.[5]

By 1963 planning had proceeded to the point that detailed technical proposals, specific arsenals, and cost estimates were made.[4][5] On November 15, 1963, Dr. Paul Schmid prepared a 58-page report laying the theoretical foundations for Swiss nuclear armaments.[4][5] On 28 November 1963, the Lower Chief of General Staff estimated that the costs of building a uranium bomb at 720 million Swiss francs over 35 years, initially including 20 million francs for pure research, would be needed for planning.[2][4][5] It also calculated that should the decision be for plutonium instead of super-enriched uranium, then the estimate would be 2,100 million francs over 27 years.[2][4][5] On 4 May 1964 the military joint staff issued a recommendation to have about 100 bombs (60-100 kt), 50 artillery shells (5 kt) and 100 rockets (100 kt) within the next 15 years, at costs of about 750 million Swiss francs.[4] There were plans for 7 underground nuclear tests in 'uninhabited regions' of Switzerland ("an area with a radius of 2-3 km that can be sealed off completely").[4][5]

In addition to this, Switzerland purchased uranium and stored it in nuclear reactors purchased from the United States, the first of which was built in 1960.[1][4][5] Between 1953 and 1955 Switzerland procured around ten tons of enriched Uranium from Belgian Congo.[6] 5000 Kilograms were stored in the Diorit reactor in Würenlingen, while a stockpile of 3238 kilograms of uranium and 2283 Kilograms of uranium oxide was stored at Wimmis until 1981, and it was not covered by the international safeguards meant to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.[2] Additionally, in 1969 the Swiss government unsuccessfully tried to purchase 3 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium from Norway.[2]

In the spring of 1964, a group working within the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports, which approved of nuclear tests in Switzerland, presented a secret plan for the amassment of nuclear weapons to the Swiss Federal Council. In the first phase of the plan, "fifty bombs from sixty to one hundred kilotons" would be procured. In phase two another 200 bombs would be procured.[7] To clarify definitively whether nuclear tests should be carried out in Switzerland, the then military chief of staff Jacob Annasohn requested of Federal Councillor Paul Chaudet, head of the Federal Department of Defence, to obtain authorization for the total budget of 20 million Swiss francs from the Swiss Federal Council.[7]

Besides having a main military goal of deterrent, strategists envisioned the Swiss nuclear strike capability as part of a preemptive war against the Soviets.[8] The Swiss Air Force Mirage III jet would have been able to carry nuclear bombs as far as Moscow. They also suggested the weapons could be used on Swiss soil against a possible invading force.[8]

Switzerland did possess 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) of plutonium, which was stored at the Paul Scherrer Institute, but this supply was not suitable for nuclear weaponry.[9]

Financial problems, and the end of the Swiss nuclear program

Financial problems with the defense budget in 1964 prevented the substantial sums required from being allocated.[4] Continuing financial short-falls prevented the proposed effort from getting off the ground.[1][4][5] This, as well as a serious accident in 1969 which caused a partial meltdown in a small pilot reactor, strengthened opposition against the Swiss nuclear program.[1][5]

In 1969, Switzerland signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NTP), and would later ratify it in 1977.[3] After the treaty, The official policy of acquiring nuclear weapons was replaced by one of simply studying acquisition to provide a policy option should the NTP collapse.[4]

On April 30, 1969 The Working Committee for Nuclear Issues (AAA) was created, and met 27 times during its period of existence, which was between 1969 and 1988.[4][5] The committee had only preparatory role, however.[5]

As the Cold War started coming to an end, the AAA become less and less relevant, and in 1988, it was dissolved, thus ending the 43-year Swiss nuclear weapons program.[2][4][5]

In February 2016, the Swiss government transported their remaining 20 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium to the United States for safekeeping.[10]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Westberg, Gunnar (October 9, 2010). "Swiss Nuclear Bomb". International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Retrieved December 8, 2015. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Edwards, B. (May 25, 1996). "Swiss Planned a Nuclear Bomb". New Scientist. Retrieved December 8, 2015. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons". United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Retrieved 2013-02-28. 
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 "7.4 States Formerly Possessing or Pursuing Nuclear Weapons | 7.4.7 Switzerland". nuclearweaponarchive.org. Retrieved December 8, 2015. 
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 5.17 "Historical Outline on the Question of Swiss Nuclear Armament". nuclearweaponarchive.org (English translation of an extract from a Swiss Government report "Historischer Abriss zur Frage einer Schweizer Nuklearbewaffnung," 1996). Retrieved December 8, 2015. 
  6. "Atommacht Schweiz". Neue Zürcher Zeitung. August 10, 2008. Retrieved May 4, 2016. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Schürmann, Roman (March 20, 2008). "Die versenkte Atombombe". woz.ch. Retrieved May 4, 2016. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Heib, Anatol (January 28, 2011). ""Notfalls auch gegen die eigene Bevölkerung"". Tages-Anzeiger. Retrieved May 4, 2016. 
  9. "Swiss Plutonium Never Meant for Bomb Making". Swissinfo. March 15, 2016. Retrieved March 15, 2016. 
  10. "Transport von Aufgelösten Plutoniumlager des Bundes In die USA ist Erfolgt". admin.ch. February 26, 2016. Retrieved May 4, 2016.