The Swiss Energy Strategy 2050 is on track

Swiss voters turned down a Green initiative that demanded the rapid disposal of nuclear plants. Instead, voters preferred the gradual phasing out of nuclear energy in Switzerland.

While the amount of nuclear power plants keeps growing worldwide, the Swiss electorate had to decide whether Switzerland’s five plants should be shut down after 45 years of operating at maximum capacity. An adoption of the popular initiative would have deemed the operation of nuclear power plants unconstitutional, but the text was rejected by more than 54% of the people, and 20 out of 26 cantons.

The text had been filed by the Green party and backed by the left. However, the center- and right-wing parties, together with business associations, all recommended to say no. In their view, such measures would have forced Switzerland to increase supply of non-nuclear energy and therefore also its dependence on energy coming from abroad (about a third of the energy is of nuclear origin).

The reaction of the plant operators sounded more like a threat as they claimed compensation from the Confederation in the event of any early dismantling of their installations: if the text had been accepted, “hundreds of millions of francs” would have needed to be compensated – by taxpayers. This argument clearly convinced the last undecided Swiss voters who have almost always shown, over the past decades, to opt for caution and moderation when what is at stake can have a financial impact.

Launched in the wake of the nuclear accident in Fukushima (spring 2011), this popular initiative caused intense discussions and re-centered the debate related to the energy future on the dangers linked to the growing age of plants. Aware of the doubts expressed by the population, the Federal council (i.e. the Swiss government) has designed the “Energy Strategy 2050” in which it commits itself to a gradual phasing out of nuclear energy – but with no temporal constraints – by reducing electricity consumption and CO2 emissions, or promoting clean electricity and smart cities.

A majority of the voting population decided to trust the government and Parliament. Both had indeed invited the electorate to reject the text, mostly because they did not approve of the temporal dimension. In this case, three reactors (Beznau 1, Beznau 2 and Mühleberg) would have ceased their activities within one year – with Beznau 1 being the oldest plant on the planet, created right before the Tarapur towers in India. The two remaining ones (Gösgen and Leibstadt) would have been shut down by 2024 and 2029 at the latest. As a comparison, the Swiss nuclear power plants have a lifespan of 41.2 years, which is above the world average (29); in the EU, the average is 31.4 years and in China, only 7.

The text supporters didn’t show much disappointment and preferred to underline that an obvious resistance against the nuclear energy had emerged in the last five years since more people than the traditional left electorate voted in favor of the text, resulting in some 46% of votes. They now hope that this feeling of status quo won’t bring Switzerland to lag behind in terms of energy transition.

Words Timothée Beckert (Burson-Marsteller Zurich)
Photo CC/W-chlaus

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