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Power on or off for Swiss nuclear plants?

Published on November 26, 2016

Swiss voters are deciding on Sunday whether to close the country’s five nuclear power plants after 45 years in operation. The outcome is too close to call, according to the latest opinion poll.

The Green Party initiative argues the safety of old reactors operating since the early 1970s can no longer be guaranteed. Instead, they are calling 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.

If approved, three plants would have to be shut down as early as next year and Switzerland would phase out nuclear energy production by 2029.

The proposal is backed by an alliance of leftwing parties, trade unions and environmental organisations.

Most of the Swiss nuclear reactors have unlimited operating licences, which are subject to approval by the regulator.

Warning

Opponents, including the main centrist and rightwing parties in parliament as well as the business community, have dismissed the proposal as risky and too hasty.

They say it creates more uncertainty, danger and chaos for electricity supplies in Switzerland, and argue the country would have to increase energy imports from abroad, notably from coal-fired power stations in Germany and nuclear reactors in France.

In the run-up to the November 27 vote, opponents warned that the proposed phase out could lead to blackouts and trigger considerable compensation claims from the operators of the power plants.

Key facts

Switzerland has five nuclear power reactors, generating about 34.5% of its electricity.

It uses nuclear energy to produce electricity, in research and medicine.

Worldwide there are 447 nuclear power plants in 31 countries, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

An experimental power reactor at Lucens was written off in 1969 following a core melt.

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 power plants were abandoned in the 1980s following anti-nuclear protests.

Energy Strategy

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 policy, the government recommended decommissioning all nuclear reactors and to promote hydroelectric power, renewable energy and combined gas plants.

Last September, parliament approved an energy strategy, ending more than two years of debate. The programme foresees boosting renewable energy resources and outlaws the construction of nuclear power plants. However, it sets no deadline for the existing reactors to be shut down.

Unhappy with the Energy Strategy 2050, the rightwing Swiss People’s Party is challenging the law to a referendum, criticising planned government subsidies for renewable energy resources.

Polls

The latest opinion poll published last week found supporters just a few percentage points ahead of opponents of the initiative with 6% of respondents still undecided.

Based on the considerable drop in support among citizens over the preceding weeks, experts of the leading GfS Bern research and polling institute give an advantage to the opponents.

The vote needs a majority of cantons and the popular vote to win. It is believed that the results from six of the country’s 26 cantons could be a decisive factor, including Bern and Vaud.

Turnout on November 27 is expected to be above average, around 51%.

Nuclear votes

The vote on a proposed nuclear power phase out is the fourth and final nationwide ballot this year.

Swiss voters have had the final say on nuclear power issues six times since 1979.

Ballots also took place at cantonal and local levels, notably on the storage of nuclear waste.


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