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What is the half-life of the 'Fukushima effect' in Swiss politics?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Philippe de Rougemont ‒ Sortir du nucléaire board member, Geneva, Switzerland.

In Switzerland as in most western countries, citizens show a pattern of slowly shifting from initial enthusiasm towards nuclear power to resilience and now defiance. By Sunday November 27 we will know if defiance finally wins in Switzerland. It will be the country's fourth citizens vote on a nuclear phase-out plan. Anti-nuclear organizations failed in similar votes in 1984, 1990 and 2003. All hopes rely now on the November 27 vote. Let's take a look at how the campaign is doing.

What is Switzerland's' current energy mix?

Today electric power demand in Switzerland is covered by its national capacities, even though by the end of each year, Swiss utilities will have imported a considerable amount of electrons and exported as much. The country's "white gold" ‒ hydroelectric dams in the Alps ‒ provide 60% of the power generation capacity, while 38% is provided by nuclear and the remaining 2% is mostly new renewables (solar, biomass) and cogeneration.

What does the public proposal ask for?

If a majority of Swiss citizens as well as cantons vote yes, a new article in the Swiss constitution will limit to 45 years the maximum duration of operation for its five nuclear reactors. This means a phase-out in three steps:

1. By 2017 the reactors connected to the grid in 1969, 1971 and 1972 will be shut down. These are the smallest and represent half of the country's nuclear power output.

2. The Gösgen (1979) reactor will be taken off-grid by 2024.

3. The most recent and most powerful reactor, Leibstadt (1984), will be taken off-grid by 2029, closing the last reactor in operation.

The proposal states that replacement for nuclear power will have to come from renewables (domestic or imported) and energy savings.

How did this vote come about?

Days after Fukushima, the seven-person Swiss executive council (Federal Council) took the decision that Switzerland would not authorize the construction of other nuclear power plants. Parliament followed suit. This was a decision we celebrated. Before Fukushima, we had been preparing for a referendum against central states expected approval for the construction of at least one more nuclear power plant.

Federal elections were held a few months after the Fukushima meltdown. The 'Fukushima effect' created a boost in favour of moderately progressive candidates. The anti-nuclear movement was hopeful parliament was going to accelerate the development of renewables and energy efficiency. It was hopeful but not naive. This is why a public proposal (the one we are about to vote on) was crafted by the Greens, and officially validated by 100,000 signatures collected across the country, to serve in case of parliament's failure.

With this proposal in the waiting list of upcoming votes, a solid Plan B was in place in case Parliament failed to pass the appropriate legislation. The proposal was to serve as a 'Damocles-sword' over parliament. And indeed, five years later the 'Fukushima effect' in Parliament had faded and passed its half-life. Parliament hadn't scheduled a phase out of the countries' reactors, it hadn't boosted its feed-in tariffs, it refused to make security retrofits mandatory for nuclear reactors and it scrapped the Federal Council's bill to set energy saving tax returns to encourage utilities to run demand-side-management programmes.

Finally, building retrofits would not be seriously encouraged through subsidies. The energiewende à la Suisse, prepared by the Federal Council, failed almost completely in Parliament. Because anti-nuclear people expected this outcome, they prepared the proposal that will now be voted upon.

What are the alliances in place?

In the "yes" alliance, there are political parties and NGOs. The Greens, the Liberal-Greens (right-wing secession from the Greens), the Socialists, and the small evangelist and red political parties. In some cantons, the local Christian Democratic section is campaigning for a yes vote. The youth chapters of most political parties, including, in Geneva, the rightist-populist-conservative party of M. Blocher, joined the yes campaign. With them, 40 environmental NGOs and citizens' groups. The main financial force is Greenpeace.

In the 'no' alliance are the wrongly-named "conservatives" of the political spectrum, as well as the energy giants Alpiq, Axpo and BKW who run the five nuclear reactors on behalf of their public shareholders (major cantons and city authorities). The main financer is Axpo, one of the three big energy corporations. Regretfully the confederation of small- and medium-sized enterprises is also in the no camp. Last but not least in a country where citizens' respect for state authorities is high, the Federal Council as well as parliament are in the no camp.

What are the pro-nukes saying?

They are framing the proposal as being "the Greens' proposal", omitting that several famous conservatives are in favour of the proposal ‒ including personalities from the energy minister's own political party, the Christian Democrats.

The no camp says nuclear should indeed be phased out, but in "due time", not now; thus failing to note that parliament refused to schedule any date for a phase-out. Currently the Energy Minister Doris Leuthard claims that if there is a safety issue, nuclear plants will be shut. Why didn't anybody simply tell Tepco to "shut down" Fukushima when the tsunami struck?

When they turn aggressive, pro-nukes claim a yes to the proposal would create a blackout, and Switzerland would have to import coal- or nuclear-fired energy from the EU.

Finally, conservatives warn voters that utilities will claim damage reparations amounting to four billion swiss francs (US$4.1 billion).

What are the anti-nukes saying?

Switzerland is passively watching the energy transition being implemented in neighbouring countries. Germany has 14 times more solar panels installed per capita than Switzerland. Parliament has given in to pressure from the nuclear lobby and this is costing the countries industrial development.

The feed-in tariff is very weak. More than 40,000 solar power projects are awaiting co-financing from federal funds. These dormant projects amount to 50% of the Swiss nuclear output. No other sector has such a potential to boost the country's job creation, in an era where delocalization of jobs is running high due to cheaper wages in other countries and to rationalization of processes by IT and mechanization.

New renewable power is intermittent but Switzerland has very large pumped-storage hydroelectricity capacity. Nuclear power is not reliable in Switzerland: since 2015, two reactors, including the large Leibstadt reactor, have been shut down due to safety reasons. This is half of the country's nuclear capacity down, for how long? The real blackout risk comes from our dependence on nuclear power.

These past 10 years have seen the constant rise of population, economic growth and market intake of new electronic gadgets; however electricity consumption has remained stable. In the canton of Geneva, the local utility SIG was even able to boast a 2% net demand reduction in 10 years, a result of pioneering programs aimed at helping customers reduce consumption.

Finally, damage reparations are not justified because nuclear operators are running their plants at a loss (low energy market prices).

What are the prospects for the vote?

Much better than in previous votes, but still not good enough for optimism. This is why: In a federal country like Switzerland, a majority has to be double ‒ a majority of the country's population and a majority of the 26 cantons (states) need to be reached to pass proposals into the constitution.

Considering the vast majority of cantons are rural and mountainous, the values and thinking predominant in these isolated cantons outweigh urban cosmopolitan cantons such as Geneva, Basel and Zurich. Perhaps this factor explains why Switzerland is considered to be rather conservative by international comparison.

Someone said that between a physical impossibility (safe nuclear power) and a political impossibility (conservatives voting for a nuclear phase-out), the choice is easily made: go on and prove political impossibility wrong! Stay tuned to news from Switzerland, Sunday November 27 by 3pm (Central European Time). If we vote yes, this will be a boost for the nuclear phase-out campaigns in the other 32 countries still operating power reactors.