Swiss parliamentary chamber votes against limiting reactor operating lives

29 September 2015

Switzerland's Council of States has agreed to avoid putting legal limits on the operating lives of the country's nuclear power reactors. It has also rejected a proposal that was supported by the Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate (ENSI), of requiring operators to submit a long-term operating concept every 10 years once a reactor reaches 40 years of service.

In addition, it has voted to impose a time limit on the federal renewable energy feed-in tariff subsidy scheme, and for switching some of the funds supporting wind and solar power to subsidise existing hydropower stations. The decisions were taken during the autumn session between 21 and 23 September.

The Council of States is the upper chamber in the Federal Assembly, which is the Swiss parliament. The lower chamber is the National Council. The two chambers have the same powers, but sit separately.

"The Council of States rejected legal limits on the operating lives of nuclear power plants as well as a long-term operating concept. But these are not final decisions because the National Council - and the Council of States thereafter - will review the bill until both councils reach the same decisions," Michael Ruch, deputy secretary of the Council for the Environment, Spatial Planning and Energy (CESPE), a parliamentary committee in the Federal Assembly, told World Nuclear News today.

"If the opinions of the two Councils still do not converge after three debates in each Council a reconciliation conference will be called where a compromise has to be reached. So far, both Councils have accomplished the first round and have already reached an agreement regarding the prohibition of new nuclear plants," he said. "The National Council will review the bill. If an agreement is reached with the other Council on the long-term operating concept, then no further debate will be necessary for this particular matter. The remaining differences will be ironed out."

If the decision taken by the Council of States prevails, then Swiss nuclear plants may be operated until their technical limits, "purely from a safety perspective", are reached, Ruch said. The proposed legal limits on the operating lives will not affect nuclear research in Switzerland, he added.

Further debate will be held during the winter session in the National Council, between 30 November and 18 December, he said.

"CESPE came up first with the long-term operating concept and the operating limits. This was in response to a referendum that called for limits to the operating lives of nuclear power plants to 45 years. The Swiss public will vote on the initiative in 2017," he said.

A new energy policy was sought in response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident that took place in March 2011. Two months later, both the Swiss parliament and government decided to exit nuclear power production. In 2014, the Energy Strategy 2050 was considered and the National Council energy committee called for the introduction of a system requiring operators to submit plans for improving the safety of reactors after 40 years of service. Subject to approval by ENSI, this would enable reactors to continue in operation for a further 10-year period, with no limit to the number of 10-year extensions. If a reactor was judged unfit to continue in operation, the operator would receive no compensation. A Green Party initiative - the referendum Ruch referred to - to limit the life of nuclear power stations to 45 years was rejected. The government instead put forward the new energy policy.

"The new energy policy aims to step up hydropower capacity as well as promote (and subsidise) renewable energy, and to undertake considerable efforts to maximize energy efficiency," Ruch said. "Gas-fired plants are only considered as a last resort. In the first place there is the promotion of renewable energy."

The Swiss Nuclear Forum welcomed the Council of State's decision to "waive a politically motivated limitation" on the service life of the country's operating nuclear power plants. In a statement issued on 24 September, the organisation said: "Such a limitation would only lead to additional bureaucracy and would not further enhance safety." The forum added, however, that plans to make the issuance of licences for new nuclear power plants illegal are "unjustified" and that it is "still highly questionable" whether the country will be able to replace its nuclear power with renewable energy.

"In winter, our nuclear power plants provide half the electricity produced in Switzerland," the forum's secretary general, Beat Bechtold, told World Nuclear News. "It is hard to believe that such a shortfall can be compensated with domestic renewable electricity and efficiency measures. Electricity imports will most probably be necessary, and this electricity will likely be produced by fossil or nuclear power plants abroad."

Ruch said that, after the debates in both Councils, the bill has to pass a final vote that will be held during the last meeting of the session, presumably next spring. "Eventually, the Swiss people could ask for an optional referendum at the request of 50,000 citizens entitled to vote," he said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News