Swiss voters approve gradual nuclear phase out

22 May 2017

Switzerland voted in a referendum yesterday to approve a revision to the country's energy policy that promotes the use of renewable energy sources and energy conservation. The revised Federal Energy Act also prohibits the construction of new nuclear power plants.

A new Swiss energy policy was sought in response to the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. Two months later, both the Swiss parliament and government decided to exit nuclear power production. The Energy Strategy 2050 initiative drawn up by the Federal Council calls for a gradual withdrawal from nuclear energy. It also foresees expanded use of renewables and hydro power but anticipates increased reliance on fossil fuels and electricity imports as an interim measure.

In September 2013, the Federal Council adopted a draft package of measures associated with Energy Strategy 2050 and submitted it to parliament for deliberation. Last year, the National Council - the upper chamber of the Swiss parliament - adopted the draft by 120 votes to 72 with six abstentions. The Council of States - the lower chamber - subsequently approved it by 35 votes to six with three abstentions. However, the Swiss People's Party (SVP), among others, opposed the revised energy policy and succeeded in calling for a referendum on its approval. Critics claim that implementing Energy Strategy 2050 will be too expensive, lead to more bureaucracy and restrictions, place the country's energy supply at risk, and spoil the landscape.

In a vote yesterday, 58.2% of Swiss citizens voted in support of the revisions to the Energy Act. Turnout for the referendum was 42.3%.

The Federal Council and Parliament both recommended that voters accept the proposal, claiming it will lead to a gradual withdrawal from nuclear energy and ensure that Switzerland can reduce its energy consumption and dependence on imported energy from fossil fuels, while increasing the proportion of local renewable energy sources used. This, it says, will bring investment and jobs in Switzerland, thus benefiting the population and the economy.

Under the Energy Strategy 2050, CHF480 million ($494 million) will be raised annually from electricity consumers to fund investment in wind, solar and hydro power. Generation from solar, wind, biomass and geothermal sources are to increase from 2831 GWh to at least 11,400 GWh by 2035. Hydro currently accounts for 60% of Switzerland's energy output, with nuclear providing 35%. An additional CHF450 million will also be set aside from an existing tax on fossil fuels to help reduce energy consumption in buildings by 43% by 2035 compared with 2000 levels.

No construction licences will be issued for new nuclear power reactors under the revised energy law and no "basic changes" to existing nuclear power plants will be permitted. The country's five existing reactors will be allowed to remain in operation as long as the Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate considers them safe to do so. In 2003, Switzerland imposed a moratorium on the export of used fuel for reprocessing until 2020. The Energy Strategy 2050 extends this ban indefinitely.

The Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communication said it expects the revised Energy Act, together with other relevant regulations, to enter into force at the start of next year.

Energy minister Doris Leuthard said at a news conference following the vote, "After six years of debate in Parliament and at committee level, a new chapter in Switzerland's energy policy can begin. But there is still a lot of work to do."

In a referendum last November, Swiss citizens rejected a Green Party initiative that called for a 45-year limit to be placed on the operating periods of existing plants.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News