Switzerland rejects rapid nuclear phase-out

30 November 2016

Voters in a referendum on 27 November rejected a proposal to close Switzerland’s five nuclear power reactors after 45 years in operation. The Green Party initiative was rejected by 54.2% of the vote, and only six of 26 cantons, mainly in French-speaking Switzerland, came out in favour of the phase out. Turnout was 45%. More than 106,000 citizens, including registered Swiss Abroad, were able to vote online as part of a long-running trial with e-voting. Nearly 26% of them used this channel, according to the Federal Chancellery.

Energy Minister Doris Leuthard said the result was a vote of confidence in the government and its energy strategy. "Voters do not want a hasty shut down of NPPs. A policy change is not feasible from one day to the next," she told a news conference. The association of electricity companies said the result was a decision based on "common sense". The Swiss Business Federation, Economiesuisse, said voters wanted to ensure electricity supplies and avoid a dependence on imports.

Supporters of the initiative had argued that the safety of old reactors, operating since the early 1970s, could no longer be guaranteed. Instead, they called for more energy efficiency and renewable energy resources. “An orderly phase out creates more safety and protects our country,” according to the campaign slogan of the initiative committee. The proposal was backed by an alliance of leftwing parties, trade unions and environmental organisations.

Switzerland has five nuclear power reactors at four NPPs, generating about 34.5% of its electricity. If the initiative had been approved, three units would have had to close next year - Muehleberg NPP and units 1 and 2 at Beznau NPP.  Goesgen NPP would have had to close in 2024 and Leibstadt NPP in 2029.  Most of the Swiss nuclear reactors have unlimited operating licences, which are subject to approval by the regulator. Two reactors, Beznau 1 and Leibstadt, are currently off grid due to repairs. The Mühleberg plant will be closed down in 2019 according to the power station operators. Plans to build two new plants were abandoned in the 1980s following anti-nuclear protests.

Following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the Swiss government in 2011 decided in principle to opt out of nuclear power production by 2034. In its Energy Strategy, the government recommended decommissioning all nuclear reactors and to promote hydroelectric power, renewable energy and combined gas plants. In September 2015, parliament approved an energy strategy, ending more than two years of debate. The programme aims to boost renewable energy resources and outlaws the construction of NPPs, but sets no deadline for the closure of existing reactors. However, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party is challenging the energy strategy to a referendum, criticising planned government subsidies for renewable energy resources. 

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