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Crucial or ‘chaotic’? Swiss debate nuclear withdrawal

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Crucial or ‘chaotic’? Swiss debate nuclear withdrawal
Beznau 1 is the oldest operating nuclear reactor in the world. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
09:52 CET+01:00
On November 27th the Swiss people go to the polls to decide if Switzerland should begin its withdrawal from nuclear power as soon as next year. The Local takes you through the arguments.

What are they voting on?

The popular initiative ‘For an orderly withdrawal from the nuclear energy programme', backed by the Green Party, will be put to the public vote in a referendum on November 27th.

If passed, three of Switzerland's nuclear power reactors – Mühleberg and Beznau I and II – will be closed as soon as 2017, with the remaining two being decommissioned in 2024 and 2029.

From then on, other sources will have to be found for the 40-50 percent of Swiss electricity that currently comes from nuclear power.

What does the government think?

That it’s far too soon.

Since the Fukushima nuclear power disaster in Japan in 2011, the Swiss government has been working on plans to withdraw Switzerland from nuclear power. Its newly launched 'energy strategy 2050' aims to work towards that by developing renewable energy sources, but it doesn’t set a timetable for decommissioning nuclear plants, saying they should simply be shut down at the end of their “technically safe operating life”.

The deadlines set out by the Green Party initiative are not realistic and do not allow enough time to make up the reduction in electricity output via renewable sources, feels the government.

Who’s voting yes?

The Green Party leads the way, saying Switzerland's ageing reactors pose a threat to the country.

Switzerland’s Beznau I is the oldest nuclear reactor in the world, in service since 1969. In recent years the government has faced pressure from environmentalists to decommission it over safety fears. It is currently shut down after tests uncovered irregularities in the reactor’s pressure vessel. But owner Axpo says it’s confident it will be restarted on completion of maintenance and testing this autumn.

The continued use of Beznau is “a dangerous experiment in real time”, say the Greens, and increases the risk of a major nuclear accident in Switzerland.  

The popular initiative doesn’t oppose the government’s energy strategy, they say, but guarantees the reactors won’t continue to be used “until the next serious accident”.

They argue that Switzerland is already well positioned to make the transition to clean energy. The country is already 56 percent fuelled by hydroelectric energy, and there are plenty of companies working in the field of renewable energy that are ready to step up, it says.

The Greens aren’t on their own in this. The Social Democrat Party (SP) is also supporting the initiative, agreeing that Swiss reactors pose a risk. Switzerland has “a great potential” for renewable energy, and developing renewable sources would also create jobs, it feels.

Who’s voting no?

Most other parties.

The Christian-Democrat Party (CVP) agrees with the government that the timetable is not realistic, and that Switzerland may be forced to import “dirty” (meaning, coal-produced) electricity from other countries to fulfil its needs.

“The ‘energy strategy 2050’ meets our expectations,” said the party in a statement, adding that no argument proposed by the popular initiative was convincing.

Many are also concerned by the financial barrier, fearing that, if the initiative is accepted, the companies that operate the nuclear power plants could claim compensation if the reactors are shut down earlier than previously planned.

On Sunday the head of Axpo, which runs three including Beznau, said he would certainly look to claim damages if the people vote ‘yes’, and that figure could be as high as 4.1 billion francs.

And Alpiq, which part-owns the Gösgen and Leibstadt reactors, estimates it will be left 2.5 billion out of pocket if the initiative is accepted. Closing the plants before the end of their operating life “is not economically viable” for Alpiq due to the investments it has already made, it said in a statement.  

Voting yes would cost the country billions, make Switzerland dependant on foreign power sources and cause “chaos and uncertainty”, judges the populist Swiss People’s Party, clearly opposed to the initiative.

“Don’t think we could, in such a short amount of time, replace nuclear power with renewable energy,” it said in a statement, saying the development of many proposed new wind farms are currently blocked by environmental and resident groups.

The Liberal-Radical Party (FDP) agrees, saying such a quick withdrawal from nuclear would be “disorderly” and “chaotic” without the infrastructure in place to replace it with renewable energy.

What do you think?

Should Switzerland seize this chance to get out of nuclear for good? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
 

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