Switzerland votes: It won't scrap nuclear energy any time soon

Expressing concerns of losing energy independence, Swiss voters on Sunday rejected a plan shut down their last nuclear power plant in 2029.

Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters/File
Steam emerges from a cooling tower of the nuclear power plant Leibstadt near Leibstadt, Switzerland in November 2014.

Swiss voters decided in a referendum on Sunday to stick with nuclear power for the foreseeable future. In a 54.2 to 45.8 percent vote, the Swiss public rejected an initiative that would have forced their government to shut down all five of the country’s nuclear plants by 2029. These generate a third of the country’s electricity.

Anxiety over losing energy independence overshadowed the safety concerns posed by the proponents of shutting down Swiss nuclear reactors, one of which, the nearly 50-year-old Beznau I, is the oldest operating nuclear power plant in the world.

The vote was part of Switzerland's direct democracy system, whereby national proposals require backing from a majority of the country's states and of the national vote to pass. Out of Switzerland's 26 states, only six supported the shutdown plan, which would have first shuttered Swiss reactors Mühleberg and Beznau I and II next year. Next, Gösgen would have been decommissioned in 2024 and Leibstadt in 2029. Beznau I and Leibstadt, the largest Swiss atomic power station, have been offline for months because of maintenance issues.

"We're very happy Swiss voters are giving such an explicit result," Heinz Karrer, a former head of the utility Axpo and current president of the pro-business group Economiesuisse, said on state-run broadcaster SRF.

"Switzerland's people don't want a radical solution," he added. "It would have caused uncertainties about our energy supply, something Swiss people were unwilling to risk."

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, when a major earthquake and tsunami damaged a nuclear power plant on Japan's Pacific coast, which then released tons of radioactive water and waste into the ground and water, the Swiss government promised a gradual transition from nuclear to renewable sources of energy, such as wind, solar, and biomass, by 2050.

But it never set a precise timeline for shutting down nuclear plants. And now, the largest party in parliament, the Swiss People's Party (SVP), is gearing up to legally challenge the phase-out plan because it is too expensive. The country’s government and industry fought the plan all along, arguing that it would lead to blackouts, high electricity costs, and dependence on coal power from neighboring Germany.

In contrast, Germany made a more concrete commitment to phase out nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster. It plans to shut down its nuclear power plants by 2023.

Switzerland’s Green party, which is not part of the country's broad coalition government, says it will continue to push for nuclear phase-out.

"We would have liked to win, that's clear, but 45 percent for 'yes' is a good result," Regula Rytz, the Greens party's chairwoman, told SRF. "The problems haven't been resolved with this referendum Sunday," Rytz said. "We will keep at it on safety, on financial security ... and on expanding renewable energies."

At least one nuclear plant is likely to be shut down in Switzerland. Citing the high costs of operating and maintaining the Mühleberg facility, Swiss utility BKW AG says it plans to shut it down in 2019.

This report uses materials from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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