ZURICH The Swiss government opposes an initiative to be voted on in November that would shutter three nuclear plants next year, Energy Minister Doris Leuthard said on Tuesday.
While the government aims to exit nuclear energy eventually, she told a news conference in Bern, the proposal to be decided by referendum on Nov. 27 is premature, leaving Switzerland unable to replace power output with energy from renewables.
The initiative, pushed by Greenpeace and the Swiss Green Party that dispute Leuthard's dire predictions, demands reactors Beznau I und II and Muehleberg be closed in 2017, with two remaining stations to follow in 2024 and 2029.
A hasty shutdown, Leuthard contended, would leave Switzerland's energy security in tatters, boost dependence on German coal-fired power and expose taxpayers to utilities' demands for remuneration.
"Compensation lawsuits are inevitable," Leuthard said. "Taxpayers would be on the hook."
Swiss power company BKW already plans to shut its Muehleberg plant in 2019, citing high costs to keep the nearly 45-year-old site running.
Accelerating that to 2017, while adding more closures, would leave Switzerland hard pressed to replace more than 1,000 megawatts of power, enough for 1.6 million households, BKW Chief Executive Suzanne Thoma said.
"Electricity is something we take for granted," Thoma said. "When it is no longer available, everything falls apart."
The initiative was launched after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, which prompted countries including Germany to decide on a quick nuclear exit.
Beyond boosting safety, proponents contend, it will save money and add urgency to Swiss energy efficiency efforts and the transition to wind and solar.
Foes are resorting to empty blackout threats, said initiative spokesman Kaspar Schuler, adding the largest Swiss nuclear station, Leibstadt, has been offline since Aug. 2, while one Beznau reactor has been shuttered since 2015 -- all without disrupting the country's energy supply.
"We now have far more electricity capacity offline due to unplanned outages than would be shut off next year as a result of a successful initiative," Schuler told Reuters. "And nothing has happened."
As an alternative, Leuthard on Tuesday said the Swiss government's "Energy Strategy 2050" programme will accomplish similar goals: a ban on new nuclear stations, combined with support for renewables and consumption-trimming measures.
That programme is under threat, however, with the Swiss People's Party (SVP), parliament's most powerful, pushing a referendum via the Swiss system of direct democracy to dump it. The programme is costly, ineffective and a "massive intrusion on every corner of citizens' lives," the SVP said last week.
(Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Michael Shields)