By John Miller
ZURICH (Reuters) - 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 favoring it in a vote that was part of the Swiss system of direct democracy giving citizens a final say on important issues.
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 neighboring Germany.
"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 operations.
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 discoloration in eight cladding tubes used to encase Leibstadt's fuel rods.
(Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Andrew Bolton)