On Sunday the people of Switzerland were offered a choice in a referendum as to whether to accelerate the shut-down of their nuclear power stations. With a result of 55% to 45%, the public showed a clear support for maintaining their nuclear fleet.
Following the Fukushima incident, the Swiss government committed to a nuclear phase out leading to a 100% renewable economy, but the timescales were vague. The proposal to accelerate nuclear closures, put forward by the Green Party, would have resulted in three of their five plants being shut next year, the fourth in 2024 and the last in 2029. However with nuclear providing almost 40% of Switzerland’s power, the risks of compromised energy security, consequential pressures to bills and the economy, and the potential increasing reliance on fossil fuels to meet shortages were more important to voters than the Green’s concerns over ageing plants.
The results of the referendum mean the current Swiss nuclear plants should continue to operate for approximately 60 years, with the first plant closing as previously planned during the 2030s. Other country’s reactions to Fukushima have been more extreme, with Germany closing all reactors and pushing their energiewende program. Although this has increased renewables, it has also increased coal and thus compromised Germany’s decarbonisation leadership.
Switzerland also gets a large proportion of its power from renewables with approximately 60% coming from hydroelectric power. Combined with low-carbon nuclear power this means it has a very clean power sector. Swiss nuclear is not just used for power, but also for heat, an example that other reactors should follow. The BBC reported that, “Environmentalists have said no nuclear reactors should be allowed to operate for longer than 45 years”. However it is incorrect to argue all environmentalists, in Switzerland or elsewhere, are anti nuclear power. Hydropower has some severe consequences to biodiversity and also can have significant methane emissions and other renewables also have their impacts. Nuclear may not be renewable but pragmatic environmentalists would argue it is low-carbon, reliable power with no impact on air quality and little impact on biodiversity. Keeping existing plants is a good first step for nuclear and it is encouraging to see that in some areas the technology has public support. But a continued commitment to phase out nuclear could risk the environmental and economic benefits that nuclear provides Switzerland. Reuters have reported that the entire phase out plan is now being questioned, with the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest in parliament, aiming to challenge it with a separate referendum on the grounds it is too expensive. Hopefully this referendum could represent a turning point for nuclear power in Switzerland and around the world, a very timely one considering the accelerating imperative of decarbonisation.