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Switzerland Votes to Phase Out Nuclear Power

The nation plans to decommission its five nuclear plants and invest in renewables

Leibstadt Nuclear Power Plant in Switzerland (Wikimedia Commons)
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Yesterday, voters in Switzerland approved a government plan to phase out nuclear power and to push toward more sustainable sources of energy, reports the BBC. In a binding referendum, the nation voted with a 58 percent majority to phase out the five nuclear power plants that currently supply about one third of the country’s energy. The plan also includes a ban on building new nuclear plants and will provide subsidies for the development of new renewable power sources like solar, wind and hydroelectric power.

"The results show [that] the population wants a new energy policy and does not want any new nuclear plants," Energy Minister Doris Leuthard tells Reuters. As Chloe Farand at The Independent writes, the Swiss use a system of direct democracy, in which the population has final say in important matters like energy policy. 

The BBC reports that the government first proposed phasing out nuclear plants in 2011, after the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan, when an earthquake and tsunami led to core meltdowns at three of the reactors at the nuclear power plant. The latest referendum calls for the first of the five Swiss plants to close in 2019.

Proponents argue that the benefits of nuclear power are not worth the risks, especially as the plants age. Farand reports that the government estimates the plan will lead to a roughly $40 due annual surcharge per family to fund renewable energy. The Swiss People’s Party, however, says its calculations show that the plan would cost each family in the country $4,410 and would lead to Switzerland importing more electricity.

According to Reuters, $660 million will be "raised annually from electricity users" to invest in renewable energy and $620 million will be pulled from current fossil fuel taxes for improvements in the energy efficiencies of buildings. The ultimate goal of the latter fund is to cut energy requirements by 43 percent by 2035 compared to 2000 levels.

But it will be hard work filling the energy gap left by nuclear. While hydropower produces 60 percent of the nation’s energy and nuclear makes up about 35 percent, solar and wind comprise less than five percent of its energy production.

Switzerland isn’t the only nation divesting itself of nuclear power. Austria built a nuclear power station in the 1970s, but never put it online. In 2012, Japan announced plans to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s, though that moratorium soon crumbled and the nation is currently debating the fate of its nuclear industry. In 2011, Germany announced a plan to phase out its nuclear power plants by 2022. The transition has been tough. But as Jess Shankleman at Bloomberg reported last year, Germany was able to meet its energy needs using renewable energy alone. That is, for 15 minutes or so on a windy and sunny Sunday.

Though Switzerland is now facing a myriad of challenges, they hope that the new law will help them move into a new era of energy. As Leuthard said in a press conference, "The law leads our country into a modern energy future."

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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