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Swiss to vote on faster nuclear phaseout

Published on November 27, 2016

Switzerland votes Sunday on whether to speed up the process of phasing out the country's nuclear power plants, in a move that would shutter three of its five reactors next year.

Just a few months after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant was destroyed in the March 2011 tsunami disaster, Switzerland decided to gradually close its nuclear plants, but did not set a clear timeline.

The government’s plan was to decommission five ageing reactors, which today produce around a third of the country’s electricity, as they reached the end of their safe operational lifespan.

But all of Switzerland’s nuclear plants have open-ended operating licences, meaning they can continue operating as long as they are deemed safe.

That was not good enough for the Green Party, which four years ago gathered more than the 100,000 signatures needed to put an issue to a popular vote — a regular feature of Switzerland’s direct democracy.

The “Nuclear Withdrawal Initiative” to be voted on Sunday calls for the reactors to operate for no longer than 45 years.

This would entail the final closure next year of Beznau, which has been operating in the northern Swiss canton of Aargau, near the German border for 47 years.

That plant, which has two reactors currently undergoing repairs, became the world’s oldest functioning commercial nuclear plant after Britain’s Oldsbury reactor closed in 2012.

The Muhlberg plant, which opened in Bern canton in 1972 would also need to close next year if the Greens get their way, while Gosgen in Solothurn would shut in 2024 and finally Leibstadt in Aargau by 2029.

– ‘More dangerous and expensive’ –

Without a definite time limit, “you have to wait until there is a breakdown or an incident before you can close the nuclear plants”, initiative spokesman Mathias Schlegel told AFP in an email.

“With age, the nuclear plants become more dangerous, but also more expensive and less reliable,” he insisted.

While the Swiss government supports gradually shutting down the plants, it is opposed to the initiative, cautioning that it would lead to premature closures.

“The reduction in electricity output could not be compensated quickly enough by electricity generated from renewable sources,” the government said in its policy position.

With around a third of the country’s electricity coming from nuclear power, the government has warned that closing the plants too quickly would force it to increase electricity imports and would “undermine the security of supply.”

The initiative’s backers meanwhile argue that with Beznau currently down and Leibstadt also undergoing repairs until early next year, the Swiss will already make it through this winter with the nuclear plants at only about 50-percent capacity.

And they insist that the rapid expansion of renewable energy production in Switzerland and in Europe could quickly compensate for the lost production if all the reactors shut.

The Swiss parliament has also opposed the initiative, along with all the right-leaning parties, while the Greens have the backing of the left-leaning factions.

The Greens initially appeared to have strong popular support, but that had dwindled significantly in the latest opinion poll, which put the “yes” and “no” camps neck-and-neck at 48 percent and 46 percent respectively.

Polling stations in most places will open at 10:00 am (0900 GMT) and are set to close at noon, but most people in the wealthy Alpine nation vote in advance.

The final results of Sunday’s vote are expected to be announced by early evening.