* Nearly 55 percent reject plan in referendum
* Government, industry opposed measure
* Greens, others fear for safety of aging Swiss nuclear
(Updates with result, adds government minister comment)
By John Miller
ZURICH, Nov 27 Swiss voted in a referendum on
Sunday to reject a speedy exit from the nation's five nuclear
power plants, as concerns over losing energy independence
outweighed safety worries raised by the measure's proponents.
Nearly 55 percent of voters turned down the initiative, with
45 percent favouring it in a vote that was part of the Swiss
system of direct democracy giving citizens a final say on
Swiss reactors Muehleberg and Beznau I and II would have
been shuttered next year, followed by Goesgen in 2024 and
Leibstadt in 2029, had the initiative passed.
The Swiss government and industry fought the plan, saying it
could have led to blackouts, higher costs and the loss of energy
independence because the country would have become more
dependent on coal-fired power from neighbouring
"We're very happy Swiss voters are giving such an explicit
result," said Heinz Karrer, a former head of the utility
Axpo and current president of the pro-business group
Economiesuisse, in an interview on state-run television 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."
Germany plans to shutter its remaining nuclear plants by
2022, a response to the 2011 disaster in Japan that also
prompted the Swiss initiative.
Switzerland has a 2050 energy strategy in which it would
gradually replace nuclear power that now supplies about a third
of the country's electricity with renewables, including wind and
solar. The strategy calls for eventual closure of the Swiss
reactors, but without a deadline.
That plan is under threat, however, with the Swiss People's
Party (SVP), the largest in parliament, aiming to challenge it
with a separate referendum on the grounds it is too expensive.
Swiss energy minister Doris Leuthard, at a press conference
in Berne following the vote, said she would counter any SVP-led
referendum with arguments similar to those that she used when
fighting Sunday's initiative.
"I'm relieved by this outcome, because it allows us the
necessary time to transform our energy system," Leuthard told
reporters. "The people are in agreement - this is something that
won't happen overnight."
Swiss utility BKW AG already plans to shutter
Muehleberg in 2019, citing the high costs of maintenance and
Swiss Green Party advocates for a quicker atomic power exit
have cited worries about an aging atomic capability, with Beznau
I the oldest operating nuclear power station in the world,
having been started in 1969.
That reactor and Leibstadt, the largest Swiss atomic power
station, have been offline for months following maintenance
issues, including the discovery of discolouration in eight
cladding tubes used to encase Leibstadt's fuel rods.
(Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Andrew Bolton)