GENEVA – Like other countries after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Switzerland pledged to abandon nuclear power in coming years. But anti-nuclear advocacy groups say the Swiss government's timetable isn't fast enough, and have pushed for a referendum this weekend that would hasten the planned exit.
Swiss voters cast ballots on Sunday on an initiative championed by environmentalists and nuclear foes that would, if passed, shutter by 2029 the last of Switzerland's five nuclear power plants that now generate 40 percent of the country's electricity.
Polls suggest a tight race on an issue that could put Switzerland on a similar track to one in neighboring Germany. The Germans have been aggressively ramping up transition to renewables like solar energy in time to be done with nuclear energy by 2022, a deadline also set after a tsunami ravaged Japan's Fukushima nuclear power facility five years ago.
As part of an energy plan that runs through 2050, the Swiss government has already agreed not to replace its existing nuclear plants, which can operate as long as they're deemed safe. The plants are to be closed progressively as their life spans expire, and the government says it needs time to switch to other sources such as wind, solar and biomass energy.
Switzerland regularly holds referendums as part of its particular form of direct democracy, which allows voters in the country of about 8.2 million to set policy on major issues — at times causing hassles for officials to carry out the public's will.
The two chambers of the Swiss legislature and the executive Federal Council have variously argued that the initiative, "for an orderly withdrawal from the nuclear energy program," would force Switzerland to import more electricity, such as from carbon-spewing coal-fired plants in Germany. Plus, early shutdowns could make the government — and thus taxpayers — liable to pay penalties to the nuclear plant operators.
"The initiative will compromise the security of our energy supply," Federal Councilor Didier Burkhalter said in a government video.
But Ilias Panchard, secretary-general of a group whose French name translates as "Get Out of Nuclear," says Switzerland's nuclear power complex is dangerous, aging and beset by problems — with two of the five Swiss plants not operating at the moment for safety or technical reasons. His group insists now is the time to set a fixed timetable, before it's too late to move to a proper replacement.
"If we just wait until an accident or a problem with the plants, then we do not have the time, the energy to replace it. So the idea of the initiative, the referendum, is to say: in 2029 we will have no more nuclear energy in Switzerland," he said in an interview in Geneva overlooking the Alps.
The initiative would the limit the life span of nuclear plants to 45 years, and force the closure next year of three of the plants, Beznau 1 — which Panchard called the world's oldest operating nuclear plant, built in 1969 — as well as Beznau 2 and Muhleberg.
"Concretely, that means that in 2017, about one-third of the electricity generated by nuclear energy will be lacking. That amounts to the average annual electricity consumption of close to half of Swiss households," Burkhalter said, adding that renewables won't be able to make up the difference right away.
Two other plants would shut over the next 13 years: Goesgen would close in 2024 and Leibstadt in 2029.