June 20th, 2010
Nuclear energy has received an important psychological boost with a decision by Sweden – one of the first countries to reject the atom – to allow the building of new reactors. The Riksdag, the country’s parliament narrowly voted late last week to allow the building of new Sweden power stations, overturning a referendum 30 years ago that voted to phase them out.
Sweden was early in embracing atomic energy, establishing a body to research it in 1947, and commissioning its first experimental reactor in 1954. It decided in 1965 to start building commercial plants in an attempt to avoid the uncertainties in oil prices and to increase energy security, being far ahead of its time in addressing these present-day concerns. Over the next 20 years it became one of the world most nuclear dependent nations; even today the atom provides nearly half of its electricity. But, even as the reactors were being built, public opinion turned against it. By the mid 1970s polls showed some 80 per cent of Swedes against any further expansion on safety grounds and following the 1980 referendum – in the wake of the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant in the US – the Riksdag forbad any new building and decided to aim to close all reactors by this year, phasing out nuclear energy altogether.
The phase-out was heavily eroded over the years. In 1994 an energy commission reported that it would be economically and environmentally impossible to accomplish by 2010. Three years later two of the first reactors – built controversially close to Denmark – were indeed shut down, but the working lives of all the others were extended to compensate. Public opinion swung back towards the atom as concern about climate change grew, and the phase out was formally abandoned in 2007. And now last week’s 174-172 vote will allow new reactors to be built.
It may, however, prove to be more of a psychological boost than a practical one. It will only allow existing reactors to be replaced, and so will not permit an expansion of nuclear power. They can only be built on current nuclear sites and cannot start up until their old counterparts stop. And none of the existing fleet is likely to need replacing before 2030. Furthermore public support has begun to ebb again, and opposition parties have sworn to overturn the decision if and when they gain power. The long and tortuous saga of nuclear power in the Scandinavian country has a way to run yet.
Anti-nuclear Swedes embrace the atom – for now, anyway