The shock of the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, proved a game changer for nuclear energy in Switzerland. Four months after the March 2011 disaster the Swiss government decided to decommission all nuclear power plants in the country.
A binding legal decision is to be made in 2015. Before then, as memories of Fukushima fade, the pro nuclear energy lobby may have a window of opportunity to make their case.
“The more difficulties and problems that surface, and the more uncertainty that arises, the greater also the need will be to rely on something sure again,” Rolf Schweiger, president of the nuclear energy-friendly Campaign for Sensible Energy Politics, told swissinfo.ch.
“It doesn’t make sense to burn one bridge when the other one does not yet exist or is not yet in the process of being built,” said Michael Schorer, spokesman for the Nuclear Forum Switzerland. “We reject the ban on building new nuclear power plants and urge the federal council to devise an additional scenario that includes nuclear energy.”
In this regard the Nuclear Forum is at one with business associations which have objected to the general ban on nuclear energy contained in the government’s Energy Strategy 2050. The on-going consultation procedure ends on January 31, 2013.
Energy plans for the future
The Energy Strategy 2050 is under review until the end of January 2013. Energy use is to be reduced by one-third by 2035, and by almost half by 2050.The savings focus on fossil fuels in particular, which currently cover 70% of total energy use.
By 2050 this proportion should decrease to less than 50%. The remaining energy use should be almost exclusively covered by renewable energies.
Electricity consumption should decrease slightly. The withdrawal from nuclear energy should be compensated with renewable energies (sun, wind, etc.), as well as with gas power plants.
Electricity costs are expected to increase by 20% to 30% by 2050.
On January 29, the electricity industry and several environmental organisations said they basically supported the government’s proposals but called for improvements, including the closer coordination of production, electricity network and storage.
Merely a statement of intent
After the reactor catastrophe in Fukushima, both the cabinet and parliament agreed to phase out nuclear power in Switzerland. However, in legal terms, the decision is essentially a declaration of intent. A ban on the construction of new nuclear power plants is contingent upon revising either nuclear energy legislation or the Swiss constitution.
It is highly likely that Swiss voters will eventually go to the polls to vote on whether new nuclear power plants can be built. Before then, the government and parliament will be occupied with this issue. Practically speaking, this means it is hardly possible for a vote to take place before 2015.
At that point, four years will have passed since Fukushima. According to the 2012 Worry Barometer, a poll identifying which problems most worry the Swiss, anxiety over a potential nuclear accident has further abated.
Swiss Electricity Mix
Nuclear power: 39.3%
New renewable energies: 2%
Majority against nuclear power
Notwithstanding, even before Fukushima the construction of new nuclear power plants would not have garnered the support of a majority of Swiss, said political scientist Gregor Lutz. “In politics, even parties on the right are keenly aware that nuclear power plants are anything but popular.”
This might also be why the electricity industry has “kept quiet” about new nuclear energy plants, according to Lutz. “Otherwise, they would be at odds not only with the cabinet, but also with their own boards of directors, on which political appointees also sit.”
Furthermore, community and cantonal representatives who support a turnaround in energy policy also sit on these boards of directors.
But behind closed doors “lobbying and working is diligently taking place, in order to possibly find a way out of the decision to get out,” said Lutz.
Initiative for the Withdrawal from Nuclear Energy
The Green party has collected 109,000 signatures in support of a people’s initiative that would require caps on the lifespans of existing nuclear power plants, with decommissioning after an operating period of 45 years. If Swiss voters approve the initiative, the newest nuclear power plant, in Leibstadt, would be decommissioned by 2029.
The Green Party launched the initiative following the catastrophic earthquake and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011.
People’s initiatives allow citizens to propose modifications to the constitution. Signatures must be collected from at least 100,000 eligible voters within 18 months. Parliament can directly accept the initiative. It can also refuse it or put forward a counter-proposal. In all cases a nationwide vote takes place.A people's initiative needs a majority of the popular vote as well as the backing of a majority of cantons to be adopted.
In addition to the ebbing of Fukushima in the collective memory, the nuclear lobby could gain buoyancy from other factors in the coming months. Turning around energy policy is a complex project.
The production of solar and wind energy – unlike hydro and nuclear energy – is subject to strong fluctuations. Depending on the scenario, the gas power plants necessary for base-load energy have the disadvantage of burning fossil energy and emitting CO2. The financing of the proposed ecological tax reform – namely, a possible levy on the consumption of heating oil, gas, and electricity – is still only vaguely envisaged and is opposed by the business community.
The question of when the Swiss nuclear power plants should be decommissioned is open. Officially, the nuclear energy law stipulates maintaining the plants as long as the regulatory authorities declare them “safe.” The planning parameters specify a 50-year reactor lifespan, which would mean that the last Swiss nuclear power plant would be shut down in 2034.
However, the electricity industry is already arguing that the existing facilities can be operated beyond the 50-year lifespan, as long as they are continually renovated and reequipped. “There’s no reason to believe that the nuclear power plants we now have cannot be operated longer than 50 years,” Heinz Karrer, head of Axpo, said at their annual press conference.
The nuclear power lobby is attempting to “gain time” with this argument, said Lutz.
“Insofar as one attempts to delay the withdrawal, the hope is that anxiety over Fukushima dwindles, and that new technologies become available that can be characterised as safe, thus also making it politically possible to push through the construction of new nuclear power plants.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is a people’s initiative organised by the Green Party. Submitted last year, it demands that existing nuclear power plants be shut down after a working life of 45 years. If approved by Swiss voters, the newest power plant, in Leibstadt, would have to close its doors in 2029.
But Schweiger believes the initiative will not be approved at the ballot box.
“The problems that are seen as significant, such as the upcoming gap in supplies, will occur much sooner than anticipated. It’s likely that the pragmatism of the voters will play a rather large role.”
From the point of view of the nuclear lobby, the initiative is “interesting”, said Lutz, because “you can fight within the relatively technical issue of the plants’ lifespan, and because in this particular aspect the cabinet and parliament are on your side."
"If on the other hand the initiative is approved, it would then be necessary to implement the desired change faster than was negotiated.”
The initiative is a means of pressuring the government and the parliament “to ensure that the withdrawal from nuclear power does not end up sidelined again,” Urs Scheuss, a Green Party expert on the environment, energy, and transportation, told swissinfo.ch.
Pressure is necessary to ensure that the decommissioning goes forward and is implemented, because the nuclear energy lobby “still exists,” said Scheuss. Still, the lobby would have to overcome “a fair amount of hurdles” to reverse the decision to withdraw from nuclear energy.
“Previously, only a general license was required to build a new nuclear power plant. Now the lobby would also have to deal with the clear decision to decommission all nuclear power plants that was made in autumn 2011,” said Scheuss.
A majority of Swiss are critical of nuclear energy, noted Scheuss, pointing to a representative survey commissioned by the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate. Only 25 per cent of Swiss were of the opinion that the use of nuclear energy justified the associated risks.
“The initiative can definitely be won,” concluded Scheuss.