The Swiss cabinet wants to gradually decommission all of Switzerland’s nuclear power plants by 2034.
Energy Minister Doris Leuthard said the country’s five nuclear power stations would not be replaced when they reach the end of their lifespan.
The government’s recommendation on Wednesday will now be discussed by parliament at the beginning of June and a final decision is expected in the middle of June.
Leuthard said the government was going on a lifespan of 50 years, meaning the first of five power stations would close in 2019 and the last in 2034.
Other options had included maintaining the status quo and replacing the three oldest plants or abandoning entirely and rapidly the use of nuclear energy.
Leuthard said the crucial thing was safety. “The existing reactors will operate for as long as they are safe,” she said, adding that no firm date had been set for the withdrawal and that while the reactors’ lifespan could be less than 50 years “it could also be 60”.
She was “convinced” that the government’s decision would pay off in the long run – “new jobs will be created and Switzerland will find itself in a good position internationally.”
Shutting down the power stations immediately was not a future scenario, she said. “Our reactors are safe. An immediate shutting down would weaken the network and the capacity could not be replaced.”
The government estimated that gradually phasing out nuclear power in Switzerland would cost SFr2.2-SFr3.8 billion ($2.5-$4.4 billion).
In addition, the increased use of fossil fuels could generate up to almost 12 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050.
Some 40 per cent of Switzerland’s energy needs are supplied by the country’s five nuclear power plants. This would be replaced, the government said, by hydroelectric power, renewable energy and combined gas plants among other methods.
The government’s decision on the future of nuclear power comes days after an estimated 20,000 people participated in the biggest anti-nuclear protest in Switzerland for 25 years.
The protesters called on the government to immediately shut down the Mühleberg and Beznau power stations, the two oldest nuclear power plants.
In the wake of the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, the Swiss government suspended all processes relating to the building of new power plants and ordered a review of options for the country’s energy mix in the future.
The centre-left Green Party welcomed the cabinet’s decision but criticised the length of time until the decommissioning started, especially for the older stations of Beznau and Mühleberg. Beznau, the party said in a statement, must be shut down immediately.
It said the decision was a step in the right direction but didn’t reflect the public’s desire for a rapid withdrawal from nuclear power.
The centre-left Social Democratic Party also welcomed the move, saying any other decision wouldn’t have been credible.
“The decision is for all future generations instead of being just in the interest of a few electricity barons,” said the party fraction’s president Ursula Wyss.
“Hasty and premature”
Less joyous was the centre-right Radical Party, which said it had “mixed” reactions to the decision. It welcomed the end of the current reactors, but believed the door shouldn’t be closed for good on new technologies.
The party also wanted to see a push for greater energy efficiency and support for renewable energy and a more open energy market.
Security of electricity supply at affordable prices must be guaranteed for individuals and businesses, the party said.
The rightwing Swiss People’s Party said it was “disappointed” with the decision, which it described as “hasty and premature”.
It said the government risked inflicting higher electricity prices and supply bottlenecks on businesses and private households.
The party said it wasn’t prepared to give up on the nuclear option without a plausible alternative with realistic prospects for guaranteeing future energy needs.
The Agency for Renewable Energy, which says it represents around 8,000 Swiss companies, was also happy about the “ground-breaking decision” which would result in a “sustainable and business-friendly supply of energy”.
“It's basically what we asked them to do,” said Christian Zeyer of Swiss Cleantech, a sustainable economic association. “We’re looking for an economy that is sustainable as a whole.”
Zeyer said the nation could turn eventually turn to hydropower, wind energy, biomass and photovoltaics.
“We can get by just fine – not at the moment, not immediately – but as time goes on there will be enough opportunities to increase renewable energies,” he said.
Swiss nuclear power
Switzerland currently has five nuclear reactors which generate about 40% of the country’s energy but will gradually come off the power grid as of 2019.
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.
Three sites for new nuclear power stations - Beznau, Gösgen and Mühleberg - have been given the stamp of approval by the national regulatory authorities.
It is widely expected that Swiss voters will have the final say on the construction of new reactors in a nationwide ballot in 2013 or 2014.
Swiss nuclear power stations
Switzerland's nuclear power stations are:
Beznau I (commissioned 1969)
Beznau II (1972)