Switzerland is witnessing a drastic turnaround in energy policy. Half a year ago, plans for the construction of new nuclear reactors were heavily debated. Now, three months after the disaster in Fukushima, the initial steps for a staged nuclear shutdown have been taken.
The Swiss government, the Federal Council, surprised many, when on May 25 it announced its decision to phase out nuclear energy in the medium term. All five Swiss nuclear reactors are to be shut down at the end of their operational lifespan without being replaced. According to the plan, the first power plant ('Beznau I'), the world's oldest pressurised water reactor still in service, would be disconnected by 2019, the last reactor ('Leibstadt') by 2034.
Along with the nuclear opt-out, the cabinet presented its 'Energy Strategy 2050'. Its main features include reducing energy consumption, strengthening energy research, and broadening electricity supply by boosting hydropower and renewable energies. Currently, Switzerland's nuclear power plants are producing 39 percent of the country's energy supply.
It's still a long and potentially bumpy road from the Federal Council's landmark decision to its actual implementation, however. First, the new energy strategy is to be submitted to both chambers of the Swiss parliament for debate. Then, concrete measures and the necessary draft laws have to be developed and formulated. These will be discussed by the parliament. It is widely expected that the Swiss voters will have the final say on the issue.
On Wednesday, the National Council gathered for a special session devoted to the government's new energy strategy. On behalf of the Social Democrats, National Councillor Eric Nussbaumer demanded the nuclear phase-out to take place earlier than proposed by the Federal Council.
"Operators pretend that their reactors can be kept in service for 50 or even 60 years, even though they were built for 40 years only," he said. Pointing at three Swiss reactors being among the world's oldest, Nussbaumer called it careless to keep them running until the end of their operational lifespan.
Fulvio Pelli, president of the Liberals, criticised the absence of concrete alternative plans to replace nuclear power. He stressed that his party was against building new reactors based on currently available technologies, but didn't want to ban nuclear technology forever.
"Nuclear energy is no technology of the future," replied Swiss Energy Minister Doris Leuthard. She argued that keeping the currently existing reactors safe was costing increasing amounts of money. Leuthard stressed the importance of taking a clear and fundamental decision. "We could lose precious time. A clear decision is an impulse for the economy, it will attract investment," she said.
Representatives of the right-wing Swiss People's Party called the cabinet’s phase-out decision a mistake, claiming it would not only destroy jobs and endanger businesses, but also put the security of energy supplies for the country at risk.
Ninety-nine of Switzerland's 246 parliamentarians are members of pro-nuclear interest groups. Most of them can be found in the ranks of the Swiss People's Party and the Liberals, but to a lesser extent also in the centre parties.
Nevertheless, most representatives of centre parties recently changed their opinions and started to support a nuclear opt-out. One explanation is obvious: parliamentary elections are up in autumn and public opinion in Switzerland on nuclear power has drastically shifted in the wake of the disaster in Japan.
A post-Fukushima survey showed that two-thirds of the Swiss voters objected to building new nuclear reactors, even if as a result electricity prices would rise. In comparison, less than a year ago, only half of the respondents rejected new power plants. The poll also showed that about a third of the interviewees supported a more or less immediate shutdown of Switzerland's nuclear reactors.
Nearly asleep before 'Fukushima', the country's anti-nuclear movement has gained increasing support. In May, a demonstration against nuclear reactors attracted more than 20,000 protesters. It was by far the largest anti-nuclear demonstration in Switzerland for 25 years.
Several smaller demonstrations took place, too. In Bern, for the past two months activists have been squatting a park facing the headquarters of BKW, the operator of several power plants, including a disputed nuclear reactor in the town of Mühleberg.
The shift in public opinion and popular pressure left their traces on Wednesday's debate in the National Council. After long discussions, a majority of the representatives voted in favour of a nuclear phase- out.
The powerful Swiss business federation 'Economiesuisse' reacted with disappointment. The country's largest umbrella organisation representing the interests of Swiss businesses has been the fiercest opponent of the cabinet's new energy strategy. It has argued that the effects of a nuclear opt-out on the national economy weren't considered by the cabinet, that its costs would be larger than estimated and that the potential of renewable energy and electricity imports was being overestimated.
Meanwhile, a much smaller economic association representing leading clean-tech companies welcomed the National Council's decision. "From an economic point of view, it's the only right way," Swiss Cleantech president Nick Beglinger said. The organisation is aware of the difficulties and costs of the envisaged turnaround in energy policy, but states that they're outbalanced by the emerging opportunities.
Beglinger is convinced that phasing out of nuclear power could even go along with fighting climate change. Swiss Cleantech regards halving the overall energy consumption of Switzerland by 2050 based on raising efficiency as realistic. Boosting alternative energies is seen as another key to success.
Switzerland's small area however could be the source of obstacles on the way to boosting renewable energy such as hydro, wind or solar power. The construction of water supply dams in the mountains for example has often sparked resistance from local residents and environmental organisations. The latter though may soon be silenced by the law, as the National Council has decided to limit their tools to block or delay the construction of energy-related projects.
This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.