Nuclear power stations can continue to operate

The Swiss people rejected the Greens’ initiative on withdrawal from nuclear power on 27 November. Withdrawal is nevertheless still on track.

Swiss nuclear power stations will continue to operate for the time being – such as the one in Leibstadt in the canton of Aargau. Photo: Keystone

The shock waves from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 have ebbed away. In any event, the Swiss electorate does not favour a rapid withdrawal from nuclear energy. They clearly rejected the Green Party’s withdrawal initiative, with 54.2 % voting against. Only the four French-speaking cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura as well as the two half-cantons of Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft approved the initiative. The Swiss have voted on the issue of nuclear energy eight times since 1979. And, with one exception, they have always supported it. Only in 1990 did they approve a ten-year moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power stations.

This time, however, they had to vote on a complete stop. The Greens were not just calling for a ban on new nuclear power plants but also sought the decommissioning of all five existing Swiss nuclear reactors by 2029 at the latest. Three plants would have been forced to stop operating in 2017. The arguments of the initiative’s authors focused on the devastating consequences of a major nuclear accident in densely populated Switzerland. After all, Switzerland has the oldest nuclear reactors in the world. Withdrawal from nuclear power is essentially not in dispute, they argued, given the Energy Strategy 2050; it is just that no structured timeframe has been established. They also said security of supply was guaranteed, with renewable energies from water, solar power, wind and biomass as well as, over the short term, with imported power.

Fears over security of supply

The financially powerful opposition picked up on this point. Over the course of the referendum campaign, they succeeded in undermining confidence in the initiative which initially had good support in surveys. They argued that the popular initiative’s roadmap was far too ambitious. Security of supply was a major issue. There was a risk of supply bottlenecks and power outages, not least owing to the overloading of the network infrastructure, contended opponents. Switzerland would make itself dependent on countries abroad and would be forced to buy dirty electricity from foreign coal-fired power plants and nuclear power stations.

There was also intensive debate over the cost of early withdrawal from nuclear energy. The Federal Council anticipated high compensation claims from nuclear power operators. The operators themselves estimated even higher figures during the referendum campaign. The energy group Axpo, for example, spoke of compensation payments of over four billion Swiss francs for the Beznau and Leibstadt nuclear power stations alone.

A soft variant of withdrawal

A further reason for the no vote to the popular initiative was the Energy Strategy 2050 adopted by Parliament last autumn. It acted as an indirect counterproposal to the withdrawal from nuclear power initiative and a kind of soft variant of withdrawal. The building of new nuclear power stations is also prohibited under the strategy. However, the existing nuclear power plants can continue to operate unrestrictedly provided the supervisory authorities deem them safe. In addition, the Energy Strategy 2050 contains a raft of measures aiming to increase energy efficiency and expand renewable energies.

In the opinion of the Berne-based newspaper “Der Bund”, the rejection of rapid withdrawal from nuclear energy was “not to be equated with withdrawal from withdrawal. This vote was not about whether but rather how the energy transition should take place”. The “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” in turn saw the rejection of the initiative as an absolute vote of confidence, “but it also sets federal Berne the task of initiating the energy transition and the withdrawal from nuclear energy to ensure that this takes place smoothly and in a financially viable way”.

The SVP takes a different view. It has called a referendum against the Energy Strategy 2050 as it opposes any state-controlled energy transition which it deems a “planned economy” measure. This should be determined by the market alone, it says. The Swiss people therefore look likely to be voting again soon on the matter of energy.

Comments (5)
  • Caspar Pfenninger
    Caspar Pfenninger at 15.01.2017
    Es müsste doch für einen Jeden klar sein, dass die Atomkraftwerkalternative, neben Hydro, die einzigste Vernunft ist. So viele Windkraftanlagen über das ganze Land zu verteilen ist ist doch allein von der Flächenverwaltung unverständlich.
    Allein das Geräusch treibt Mensch und Tier zum Wahnsinn.
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    • Hannes Berntaler
      Hannes Berntaler at 15.01.2017
      Ganz genau, schliesslich ist die Schweizer Atomkraft strahlend sauber...und das 25'000 Jahre lang. Sollen sich die nachfolgenden Generationen doch Gedanken machen wie sie den Dreck, den wir ihnen für unsere schöne Landschaft aufhalsen, loswerden.
      Show Translation
  • Richard Sommery-Gade
    Richard Sommery-Gade at 15.01.2017
    It is not easy or something that can be achieved as quickly as we would like. As long as the end result is elimination of this as a mainstay in our energy production, that is the main thing. Our world is changing so quickly in many regards, we just need to be diligent in picking the best for Switzerland after careful study. Jumping on the bandwagon of the latest shiny toy/idea, is not always in our best interest in the long run.
    Show Translation
  • Balista
    Balista at 18.01.2017
    Pour une fois je ne suis pas d'accord avec mes concitoyens romands. Acheter du courant nucléaire étranger probablement moins surveillé qu'en Suisse pour arrêter abruptement nos centrales ne, semble pas très responsable.
    Tchernobyl n'a jamais produit de courant pour la Suisse, mais de la pollution oui.
    Ce qui m'a toujours surpris avec les verts, c'est leur fixation sur un objectif sans regarder autour. Cela ressemble à la politique française qui voyait le nuage polluant du dit Tchernobyl s'arrêter au Rhin, qui ferment les deux yeux sur les bombes chimiques sans trop de protection qui nous pendent au nez.
    C'est vrai que les accidents chimiques sont moins graves que nucléaires, à la Schweizerallee, je serai curieux de savoir comment ils vont récupérer la pollution qu'ils ont déversé dans la mer. C'est chez les autres, cela ne compte plus. Tout comme à Bompal ou Savéso.
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