Swiss to vote on nuclear power phaseout

Switzerland will go to the polls on Sunday to decide on a government plan that aims for a withdrawal from nuclear power in favor of renewable energy, with the costs of the move being in the focus of the campaigns.

Sunday's referendum comes after a signature campaign organized last October by the Swiss People's Party (SVP) gave the right-wing opposition party enough support to contest the government's controversial energy plan in a popular vote.  

Under the plan called "Energy Strategy 2015," the centre-right government wants to ban the construction of new nuclear power plants, with the five existing ones - including the world's oldest operating reactor, Beznau I - being decommissioned at the end of their technically safe operating life. 

Moreover, it wants to substantially increase solar, wind, biomass, hydro and geothermal energy. To fund the costs of an estimated 480 million Swiss francs ($489 million, 439 million euros) a year, consumers will have to pay a surcharge on their electricity bills. About 450 million francs would be earmarked from an existing fossil fuels tax to help cut energy use in buildings by 43 percent by 2035 compared with year 2000 levels.

Additionally, the country's hydroelectric utilities will share 120 million franc in annual subsidies to help them compete in European energy markets, where prices have been constantly falling in recent years.

Currently, renewable resources account for under 5 percent of Switzerland's energy output, compared with 60 percent for hydro and 35 percent for nuclear. The new law wants to raise renewable energies to at least 11,400 gigawatt hours (GWh) by 2035 from 2,831 GWh now.

Tohoku earthquake and tsunami

It was the worst disaster in post-war Japanese history. Four years ago, a massive 9.3-magnitude undersea earthquake erupted off the coast of the Tohoku region, triggering a tsunami that devastated the northeastern coast of Japan, taking the lives of at least 15,880 people and leaving another 2,694 missing. Some 6,135 people were injured.

Fukushima meltdown

But the natural disaster turned into a manmade one when a 13-meter (43-foot) tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The plant's cooling systems failed, leading to overheating in three reactor cores, and radiation leaks. About 20,000 people were evacuated, while some 80,000 additional cancer cases could surface due to radiation exposure. Cleanup could take 30 years.

Three Mile Island

The Fukushima disaster was not without precedent. In 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania, underwent a partial nuclear meltdown. Feedwater pumps stopped sending water to the steam generator that cooled the reactor core, and a malfunctioning valve allowed cooling water to pour out. Some 140,000 children and pregnant women were evacuated from the area.

The legacy of Chernobyl

Until Fukushima, the Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear accident in history. In 1986, a sudden power surge at Unit 4 of the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine destroyed the reactor, releasing a radioactive cloud that spread over Russia and Europe. A 30-kilometer area was sealed off and some 335,000 people were evacuated, while at least 30 people died as a result.

New US nuclear plant

Finishing touches are being completed at the Watts Bar Unit 2 plant in Tennessee, after a long delay due to low regional power demand. Its sister plant, Watts Bar Unit 1, was the latest nuclear plant to go online in the United States, in 1996. Further new nuclear plants are planned for the US - which sees atomic energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Germany's atomic buffer

Even in Germany, with its strong anti-nuclear movement, Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition originally sought to delay the country's nuclear phase-out date from 2022 to 2034. The 2022 goal had been set by Merkel's center-left predecessor, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Merkel's coalition justified the delay by claiming that it was a buffer in the transition toward renewables.

Merkel backpedals on nuclear

But after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, Berlin reacted quickly by permanently shutting down eight nuclear plants. Merkel's coalition then decided to completely phase out atomic power by 2022, readopting the date originally set by Schröder. Germany has set a goal of 80 percent renewables by 2050 - the country recently reached the 27 percent mark in renewable energy production.

Italians uphold nuclear ban

Like Germany, Italy also has a long history of anti-nuclear activism. After the Chernobyl disaster, Italians voted in 1987 to ban nuclear power. But in 2011, then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sought to reintroduce atomic energy. The question was put to Italians in a referendum, who again voted down atomic energy.

The UK's nuclear future

In the United Kingdom, the Conservative-Liberal coalition is also seeking to promote nuclear to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the approved Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset (pictured above) - which would be the newest since 1996 - faces a legal challenge over use of state aid for construction. A recent estimate put the total cost of Hinkley C at 24.5 billion pounds (34.4 billion euros).

India expands atomic reach

New Dehli is planning to quadruple its nuclear capacity by 2020, relying on atomic energy to supply 25 percent of its electricity. But the plan has sparked fierce opposition. Demonstrators have repeatedly interrupted construction work at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, which was built with Russian support. Russia has also offered to build a dozen more nuclear power reactors in India.

China looks beyond coal

Beijing is seeking a more modest rise in its nuclear capacity. The People's Republic plans to generate 6 percent of its electricity through atomic power by 2020, compared to just 2 percent currently. The Changjiang Nuclear Power Plant, pictured above, is currently under construction in Hainan province. Nuclear power could reduce China's dependence on heavily polluting coal plants.

France banks on nuclear

France depends on atomic energy for 75 percent of its electricity. Although President Francois Hollande had pledged to reduced the country's dependency on nuclear, only one power station - an aging plant on the German border (pictured above, with protest banner) - has been earmarked for closure. In the meantime, France's 20 nuclear reactors continue to hum away - at Europe's core.

Controversy over costs

Switzerland's Energy Strategy 2050 was devised following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and is spearheaded by energy minister and current Swiss President Doris Leuthard. It mirrors similar efforts elsewhere in Europe to phase out nuclear power - most prominently in Germany where the last reactor is scheduled to go offline in 2022.

The opposition's campaign against the plan has focused on what customers and taxpayers will pay for the measures and whether a four-fold rise in solar and wind power by 2035 can deliver reliable supplies.

Toni Brunner, leader of the SVP, said the law would lead to "massive increases to the price of energy while leaving Switzerland without adequate, reliable power."

SVP has estimated that a family of four would pay 3,200 Swiss francs in extra annual costs and that more intermittent wind and solar energy would mean a greater reliance on imported electricity.

Swissmem, the electrical and mechanical engineering industry lobby, has also urged a "no" vote, citing the variability of renewable supply. "Even limited interruptions in our electricity supply can cause massive costs," said spokesman Ivo Zimmermann.

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Energy Minister Doris Leuthard has dismissed those estimates as highly inflated. She said the package would cost the average family 40 francs more a year, based on a higher grid surcharge to fund renewable subsidies. "The SVP is including costs related to a second phase of the Energy Strategy that is not up for a vote," she said in a television interview.

Polling so far suggests the law will be approved in the binding referendum, but support has slipped. A survey this month by research institute gfs.bern for state broadcaster SRG showed 56 percent of voters backed the law, down from 61 percent.

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