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Swiss reject rapid departure from atomic power

Swiss voters have turned down an initiative to close the country's five nuclear power plants by 2029. The plan was opposed vehemently by the government and industry.

More than 54 percent of voters on Sunday rejected a plan promoted by the environmentalist Green party to shut down the last Swiss nuclear plant in 2029 and thus speed up a plan already in place to transition to renewables by 2050.

Only six of Switzerland's 26 cantons, or states, backed the rapid nuclear shutdown proposal, which under the country's direct democracy system would have needed a majority both of cantons and of the national vote in favor for it to be implemented.

Switzerland's five nuclear plants currently generate around a third of electricity in the country. The government and industry vigorously fought the plan, which would have seen three reactors closing next year, warning of blackouts, higher costs and the loss of energy independence.

"We're very happy Swiss voters are giving such an explicit result," Heinz Karrer, a former head of the utility Axpo and current president of the pro-business group Economiesuisse, told state-run television station SRF.

"Switzerland's people don't want a radical solution," he said. "It would have caused uncertainties about our energy supply, something Swiss people were unwilling to risk."

Safety concerns

The Green party said it was disappointed with the result, which saw 45 percent voting in favor of the proposal at Sunday's referendum.

"We would have liked to win, that's clear, but 45 percent for 'yes' is a good result," the Green's chairwoman, Regula Rytz, told SRF.

"The problems haven't been resolved with this referendum Sunday," she said. "We will keep at it on safety, on financial security ... and on expanding renewable energies."

Among other things, the Green party has voiced safety concerns in connection with the age of some of the Swiss plants, with Beznau I (picture above), which started up in 1969, being the oldest operating nuclear power station in the world.

Following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, which prompted Germany to aim to close its last nuclear plant by 2022, the Swiss government also reviewed its energy mix, determining a plan to transition to renewable energy sources by 2050. However, it did not set a precise timetable for taking its nuclear plants out of service, saying they should continue to operate as long as they are deemed safe.

Even this gradualist approach has met with stiff opposition in Switzerland, with the largest party in parliament, the Swiss People's Party (SVP), opposing it on the grounds that is is too expensive. The SVP is planning to propose a separate referendum on the issue.

Nuclear rethinks

The Fukushima disaster prompted a number of countries, including Japan itself, to rethink nuclear power.

Schweiz Referendum zum Ausstieg aus der Atomkraft Demo von Atomgegnern bei Beznau (Greenpeace/Beni Buess)

Anti-nuclear protesters failed to gain enough support

Italy dropped plans to relaunch a nuclear power program following the catastrophe, with voters also coming out strongly against the plan in an ensuing referendum.

Belgium also plans to phase out nuclear power between 2016 and 2025.

Other countries, however, have said they want to continue or even expand nuclear energy. They include Britain, China, France, India, Russia, the United States and South Africa.

Some nations that currently have no nuclear facilities are also looking to jump on the atomic bandwagon, notably several Gulf states.

Infografik Kernreaktoren weltweit Englisch

tj/jlw (AFP, Reuters)

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