Nuclear referendum fails to mollify Swiss energy debate

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.


The abandoned nuclear plant in Satsop, Washington [sharkhats/Flickr]

Given the polarisation of the debate and high share of undecided respondents, it comes as no surprise that politicians went back into campaigning mode after the nuclear referendum in Switzerland on Sunday (27 November), write Rolf Wüstenhagen and Adrian Rinscheid.

By Rolf Wüstenhagen and Adrian Rinscheid, University of St. Gallen

Based on a proposal submitted by the Green Party after the 2011 Fukushima accident, Swiss citizens were asked to vote on an acceleration of the country’s nuclear phase-out on Sunday, November 27, 2016.

While 45.8% of the population supported the plan, which would have required Switzerland to shut down 3 of its 5 reactors in 2017 and the remaining ones in 2024 and 2029, a majority of 54.2% rejected it. The Swiss federal government had opposed the Greens’ initiative and instead proposed a slower transition. Voter turnout was at 45.3%.

Right after Fukushima, the Swiss government had shelved the nuclear operators’ plans to build three new reactors and initiated a fundamental transition of the country’s energy supply. The proposed “Energy Strategy 2050” suggests a strong increase in the growth of renewable energies like solar and wind and puts equally strong emphasis on curbing energy demand growth.

In terms of nuclear energy, which is currently supplying more than a third of the country’s electricity, the energy strategy proposes a ban on building new reactors, but initial plans to limit the lifetime of existing reactors to 50 or 60 years have been dismissed by the conservative parliamentary majority.

Given that the densely populated country is home to one of the oldest nuclear reactor fleets in the world, this has raised safety concerns. While one operator, BKW, decided to phase out its unprofitable Mühleberg nuclear power plant in 2019, the other two operators, Axpo and Alpiq, rejected binding phase out schedules and instead threatened to claim CHF6.6bn compensation if the popular initiative would find a majority.

While opinion polls after Fukushima showed widespread support for the government’s proposal to phase out nuclear power in the medium term, and even the more ambitious proposal by the Green party to accelerate the phase-out was supported by 57-61% of citizens six to eight weeks before the vote, the opponents of the initiative managed to turn opinions around in a heavy campaign.

While exact numbers are hard to come by, the pro-nuclear campaign allegedly had a budget of CHF10m, compared to just CHF2m on the side of the Green Party and environmental NGOs. Opponents claimed that a “hasty” nuclear phase-out would endanger security of supply and make the country dependent on imported nuclear and coal power – arguments that have been used in every Swiss nuclear referendum since 1990.

The pro-committee, in contrast, argued that recent impairments of nuclear operators and unplanned outages create an equally significant threat to security of supply, and pointed to tens of thousands of renewable energy projects waiting to be implemented under the Swiss feed-in tariff as a preferable road to energy independence.

The vote was characterised by strong polarisation: While almost two thirds of men and over 60-year-old voters rejected the initiative, a majority of women and young people supported it. The accelerated nuclear phase-out plan also found a majority in most major cities and in most of the country’s French-speaking cantons, while some conservative German-speaking cantons rejected it by a wide margin.

The highest opposition was found in the municipalities hosting the existing nuclear power plants, such as Leibstadt (90% no) or Döttingen (83% no), whereas communities hosting wind energy projects such as Haldenstein (58% yes) or Collonges (53% yes) supported the phase-out initiative against their respective cantonal trends.

Given such polarisation, what is the outlook for Swiss energy policy? The right-wing Swiss people’s party has announced a referendum against the Energy Strategy 2050, which has been adopted by clear majorities in both chambers of parliament after five years of debate. Our exit polls suggest that the Energy Strategy’s chances of being adopted are intact: 52% of respondents say they intend to (rather) vote in favour of the Strategy, while only 12% say they are (rather) opposed to it.

Given the high share of undecided respondents (36%), it comes as no surprise that politicians went immediately back into campaigning mode after the nuclear referendum. While the effect of intense political campaigning should not be underestimated, there is an important difference between this vote and the next one: Unlike the Green Party’s ambitious phase-out plan, the more moderate Energy Strategy 2050 is actually backed by the Federal government, which has turned out to be an advantage in previous referendums.

In conclusion, Swiss voters have once again lived up to their reputation of being reluctant to fast changes, even if this comes with continued reliance on the world’s oldest nuclear reactors. Chances are, though, that the broad political alliance supporting the Energy Strategy 2050 will make it one of the world’s first energy transitions that are approved in a direct-democratic referendum in 2017.

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