The government has won approval from a majority of the House of Representatives for a proposed gradual withdrawal from nuclear energy.
The house called on the cabinet to remove administrative hurdles for renewable energy projects and promote research in this field. But it also wants to curb the right of environmental groups to block the construction of wind- and hydro-power plants.
All the decisions taken in Wednesday’s marathon debate still have to be confirmed by the Senate at a later stage.
It could take several years before the necessary legal amendments have been discussed by parliament. Voters are also likely to have a say on the issue at the ballot box.
Two weeks ago the cabinet decided to decommission Switzerland’s five nuclear power reactors by 2034, once they reach the end of their lifespan. It announced its intention to boost renewable energy resources and promote energy saving methods instead of building new nuclear power plants.
The wide-ranging discussions in the House of Representatives – one of two parliamentary chambers – pitted the centre-left and members of the centre-right parties against the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.
The centre-right Radicals, considered close to the business community, abstained in a crucial vote over the cabinet proposal.
Supporters, mainly from the Social Democrats and the Greens, argued phasing out nuclear energy was desirable and realistic. Those unwilling to agree to a political sea change after the disaster at the Japanese nuclear power plant of Fukushima were ignoring reality, they said.
“There is a world before Fukushima and a world after Fukushima,” said Roberto Schmidt of the centre-right Christian Democrats.
Speakers called for a sustainable energy policy and innovative solutions to spare future generations a nuclear disaster.
Notably the Radical Party drew a barrage of criticism for its refusal to back the government’s proposal.
“We must not shirk from a decision over nuclear energy now,” said Social Democrat Eric Nussbaumer.
However, opponents slammed the government’s proposal as irresponsible, unrealistic and damaging for the Swiss economy.
“The cabinet might believe it has made the right choice but it is mistaken,” said Hansruedi Wandfluh of the People’s Party.
Filippo Leutenegger of the Radical Party pointed out that refusing to replace the existing nuclear power plants with a more advanced technological generation was tantamount to a “ban on technology”.
Other speakers warned of price hikes for electricity which could have a serious impact on the competitive edge of the Swiss economy.
It was an illusion to believe that renewable energy resources could make up for the gap that would open up if Switzerland phased out nuclear energy, opponents argued.
Energy Minister Doris Leuthard reiterated that the cabinet based its proposals on economic considerations and on general concerns of the population about nuclear energy.
She added there was potential for energy saving measures and for renewable energy resources which at the moment play a marginal role in Switzerland’s energy policy.
Leuthard said she had confidence in the power of innovation both from the research community and from Swiss companies.
“The government’s proposal for a phase out by 2034 gives us time to seek solutions with all players from the business community and from politics,” she said.
The cooperation of all sides involved was needed and a willingness for compromise and clear-headed decisions, she said.
The five-hour parliamentary debate was broadcast live on public television and saw a string of party-political and personal verbal exchanges. About 60 parliamentarians took part in the debate on more than 130 different detailed proposals.
Environmental issues, including nuclear energy, are seen as a key topic in the campaign ahead of October’s parliamentary elections.
Switzerland currently has five nuclear reactors which generate that will gradually come off the power grid as of 2019.
Nuclear power, including imports from neighbouring France, currently cover 38% of Switzerland’s energy demand.
Hydropower provides for 56% of Switzerland’s electricity while the remainder comes from other sources, including renewable energy.
In 1990 voters approved a ten-year moratorium for the construction of new nuclear power plants. In 2003 – three years after the end of the freeze – the electorate rejected an extension of or definite withdrawal from nuclear energy programmes.