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Switzerland: Accelerated Nuclear Energy Exit Rejected

(Nov. 30, 2016) On November 27, 2016, Swiss voters rejected by a vote of 54.2% to 45.8% the Nuclear Energy Withdrawal Initiative. (Vorlage Nr. 608, Vorläufige amtliche Endergebnisse [Proposal No. 608, Preliminary Official Results], Swiss Federal Chancellery website (Nov. 27, 2016).) The initiative would have accelerated Switzerland’s exit from nuclear energy use, with three plants closing in 2017, a fourth one closing in 2024, and the last remaining of the five plants closing in 2029, and would have prohibited the construction of new plants. (Popular Initiative For an Orderly Withdrawal from the Nuclear Energy Programme (Nuclear Energy Withdrawal Initiative), Swiss Federal Council website (Nov. 27, 2016).)

Background

The five nuclear power plants now operating in Switzerland  provide between 39% and 45% of the country’s electricity. Following the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear accident in 2011, the Federal Council, the Swiss government, agreed that no new general licenses for nuclear power plants would be granted and that Switzerland would gradually withdraw from nuclear energy production and use. (Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE), Nuclear Energy, SFOE website (July 12, 2016).)

In September 2013, the Federal Council adopted a new energy policy (2050 Energy Strategy). The 2050 Energy Strategy envisages a step-by-step withdrawal from nuclear energy production and use under which the existing nuclear power plants will not be replaced once they are decommissioned and no new additional plants will be built. The existing power plants will continue to operate as long as they are safe. (SFOE, Energy Strategy 2050, Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications website (last visited Nov. 28, 2016).) In order to compensate for the loss of electricity production from nuclear energy, the Energy Strategy 2050 calls for an increase in the use of renewable energy, in particular hydropower, and energy efficiency in buildings, appliances, and the transportation sector.  For this purpose, existing electricity networks are to be modernized and expanded, and the Federal Energy Act will be completely revised. (Id.)

Position of the Swiss Federal Council and Parliament

The Federal Council and the Parliament recommended rejecting the initiative. They argued that such a sudden and fundamental change in the rules for nuclear plant operators would result in claims for compensation against the government. In addition, they added that the proposed timeframe for decommissioning the nuclear power plants would not leave enough time to replace the nuclear energy with renewable energy, thereby increasing dependence on importing energy from foreign countries, which largely produce energy from coal and nuclear plants. (SWISS FEDERAL CHANCELLERY, EXPLANATIONS FROM THE FEDERAL COUNCIL – POPULAR INITIATIVE  OF NOVEMBER 27,2016. POPULAR INITIATIVE “FOR AN ORDERLY WITHDRAWAL FROM THE NUCLEAR ENERGY PROGRAM (NUCLEAR ENERGY WITHDRAWAL INITIATIVE)”  (Aug. 24, 2016), at 5 (in German).)