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Switzerland Votes to Phase Out Nuclear Power

It’s another blow to an industry that has been hammered in the U.S. and Europe, leaving a huge opportunity for China to emerge as a global leader in nuclear technology.

It’s a tough time to be in the nuclear business. In Europe, Germany banned construction of new plants following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, and Austria stopped the practice long ago. The U.S., meanwhile, has a fleet of aging and costly reactors, and recent attempts to build new ones have been disastrous.

On Sunday, a little over 58 percent of voters in Switzerland gave the government a thumbs up to ban new reactors as well. The country's five plants make up about 35 percent of the country’s power supply, and the law will allow current reactors to stay in service as long as they can operate safely.

The law, Energy Strategy 2050, calls for large-scale investment in renewable sources of energy like wind and solar—both of which Switzerland notably lacks at the moment. It also calls for subsidies to bolster the country’s hydroelectric sector. Switzerland currently gets about 60 percent of its energy from hydro, but it is unsubsidized, making it expensive compared to wind and solar energy generated across the border in Germany, which is.

This introduces a potentially interesting wrinkle. Under the new plan, Switzerland will introduce a subsidy for hydroelectric projects that generate less than 10 megawatts of power. This should help bring back the hydroelectric industry, which until the early 1970s produced about 90 percent of the country’s electricity needs. Arguably, it will also pave the way for the country to rely more on wind power, which can be stored by pumping water uphill and then releasing it as needed. Indeed, the country has had proposals to do this for some time, and the promise of an infusion of funds should help get it done. If it works out as planned, pumped hydropower and other renewables would work in harmony to provide a steady source of clean power—typically one of nuclear's biggest selling points, since wind and solar have well-known intermittency problems.

Switzerland’s plan stands in sharp contrast to the slow crumbling of America’s nuclear industry. While the Swiss are making a measured retreat from nukes, several U.S. states are in the unenviable position of feeling forced to continue pouring public funds into maintaining their elderly power plants. That in turn diverts investment away from developing other forms of clean power, which poses problems for meeting emissions targets outlined in the Paris climate agreement.

It isn’t all doom and gloom for nuclear power, though. What in Europe and the U.S. looks like a moribund industry is booming in India, Russia, South Korea, and China. As we recently reported, some 60 reactors are currently under construction worldwide, and plans for 160 more are on the books. China in particular is building conventional reactors as well as developing new designs, positioning itself to become the world’s largest nuclear industry. So a new dawn for nuclear could be in the offing—it just isn’t going to happen where you might expect it.

(Read more: QuartzThe New York Times, “Why America’s Old Nuclear Plants Could Be Dragging Down Clean Energy Development,” “Meltdown of Toshiba’s Nuclear Business Dooms New Construction in the U.S.,” “Fail-Safe Nuclear Power”)

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