Swiss ban new nuclear reactors

Another setback for the “nuclear renaissance”: Switzerland voted on Friday to focus more on renewables and efficiency. For the first time ever, new nuclear plants are officially off the table—though admittedly, none were planned. The Swiss just “adopted the Energiewende,” writes the Neue Züricher Zeitung. Is no one paying attention? Craig Morris has the details.

steam cloud of the Leibstadt nuclear power plant

Sun sets on Swiss nuclear power (Photo by Hansueli Krapf, edited, CC BY-SA 3.0)


Now here’s a news item you probably haven’t heard, at least judging from what I can gather on the internet: Switzerland’s new Energy Act (Energiegesetz, PDF) of 30 September 2016. You would think that, given its scope and Switzerland’s central role in Europe’s power sector, the following contents would have warranted a mention at, say, Reuters, CNN, Bloomberg, and Co.:

  • The generation of non-hydro renewable power is to grow from 1.7 TWh last year (PDF in German and French) to 4.4 TWh by 2020 and 11.4 TWh by 2035 (nearly tenfold).
  • “Per capita energy consumption” is to shrink by 16 percent from 2000 to 2020 and by 43 percent by 2035. “Per capita” is an important caveat in a small country whose population can easily grow quickly. (Switzerland’s is up around 10 percent over the past decade, like even smaller Norway’s.) Unfortunately, the law does not specify the most important aspect here: final or primary energy?
  • Power consumption is to drop by 3 percent by 2020 and 13 percent by 2035.
  • The law also, confusingly, speaks of “expanding” hydropower to 37.4 TWh by 2035 – even though it came in at 39.5 TWh last year. (If any readers know how to dissect this, please drop us a comment below.)
  • It amends the 2003 Nuclear Energy Act (here’s the old one) to ban permits for new nuclear reactors. It also bans the reprocessing and export of spent fuel rods for reprocessing (except for research purposes with the consent of the Bundesrat). And “changes may not be made to existing nuclear plants.”

There’s a lot more in the law, much of which deals with the policy mechanisms (level of feed-in tariffs, etc.). But what’s above is a real breakthrough. So why has it gone unreported in English?

One reason may be that a referendum could change everything, as the Swiss press explains (in German). But the report also suggests there is little support for such a referendum in industry, so the referendum may not even take place; in other words, the Swiss business world is happier with renewables and efficiency than with old-school energy production, consumption, and waste.

Another referendum will be held on 27 November 2016: the one for a closure of the existing reactors (in German). It does not necessarily stand a good chance of passing; parliamentarians overwhelmingly reject it (it’s an idea of the Swiss Greens). On the other hand, a recent survey of the public revealed support for a total phaseout by 2029 (basically, a limited service life of 45 years per reactor). This idea may have as much as 58 percent public support (in German)—possibly another example of politicians out of touch with the people. The first reactor to be shut down would then go offline in 2019. Leibstadt, the youngest, would be the last to go in 2029.

Opponents of the phaseout referendum will reportedly not try to reject the idea of a nuclear phaseout outright. Instead, they will try to win over the “silent majority” of undecided voters in the middle of the political spectrum by simply arguing that setting a specific date or service life for all reactors makes no sense. This clever tactic is likely to succeed, but a quick comparison with the historic debate in Germany over a nuclear phaseout suggests something less savory for nuclear supporters. Remember that slippery slope? By the time you resort to the tactic of “setting a date for a phaseout makes no sense,” you have reached the bottom of it. There is no way back up the slope for nuclear at that point.

Oddly, the Swiss press outlets all report that the new law is part of the government’s “Energy Strategy 2050” even though “2050” is never even mentioned in the new Act. This law is in fact just a starting point. By the end of this year, we will probably know what direction the country is headed.

One wonders when the international media will catch on. Maybe never—or did you know that Switzerland implemented a nuclear phaseout (by 2034) in the wake of Fukushima back in 2011?

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

9 Comments

  1. heinbloed says

    Re. hydro power capacities Switzerland:

    ” 2
    Bei der Produktion von Elektrizität aus Wasserkraft ist ein Ausbau anzustreben,
    mit dem die durchschnittliche inländische Produktion im Jahr 2035 bei mindestens
    37400 GWh liegt.
    Bei Pumpspeicherkraftwerken ist nur die Produktion aufgrund von natürlichen Zuflüssen in diesen Richtwerten enthalten. ”

    Meant is the annual average of natural hydro power production (and not the pumped hydro power) to be at a minimum production of 37.4 TWh – as a guideline.
    The anual natural flow can vary very much due to weather and climate change.

    How high is the average annual natural hydro power generation, for example over the last 10 years?

    Re. media reports:

    The Swiss energy policy is very inconsistent, an overview of what is hard fact and consistent planning is missing.
    The new act says “should, would,could …” in nearly every paragraph, a lot to scoop for every one.It is like the Belgian RE – law, plenty of words without any hard meaning.

    This might be the reason why the media are refraining from reporting. Like reporting on a weather forecast made for years ahead.

  2. heinbloed says

    News from Switzerland, the Beznau 1 reactor might be closed for good because of safety fears:

    http://www.blick.ch/news/beznau-i-fuer-immer-vom-netz-doris-leuthard-irritiert-axpo-id5674596.html
    (in German)

    In this case the Swiss state would NOT be responsible for compensation costs, estimated by the owner to be at ca. 4 billion Swiss francs:

    http://www.blick.ch/news/schweiz/atomausstiegsinitiative-axpo-will-4-1-milliarden-franken-bei-fruehzeitigem-atomausstieg-id5678268.html
    (in German)

    Other than the last article suggests in the head line the closure would not cause any cost to the government if it was forced by safety reasons.
    Only if “political reasons” cause the closure (the atom exit) the state could be called for compensation(as the article mentions further down).
    But this banger is already closed for more than a year for safety reasons.
    It would be the French state via it’s proxy conglomeration EdF/Areva/Cresot who would lose out.

  3. János Hettyey says

    Hi Craig,

    My understanding of the situation is that the act(s) may come into force only after the related ordinances are aligned and approved by the Federal Council. This takes time and that’s why these regulations are planned to take effect from January 2018. And just as you mentioned, the act(s) may also be subject to a referendum.

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