Sweden makes U-turn on nuclear power

For nearly 30 years, no nukes were good nukes in this Scandinavian nation. Spooked by the meltdown at Three Mile Island, Swedes voted decisively in 1980 to ban expansion of nuclear power, and lawmakers pledged to close down all of Sweden’s reactors by 2010.

Many here were therefore stunned this year when the government announced a sudden U-turn in energy policy. Not only should the country’s 10 nuclear power stations stay open, officials said, but the plants should be allowed to buy new reactors to replace the old ones if necessary.

Enabling legislation is to be introduced in the Swedish parliament within months, part of a remarkable renaissance underway across Europe for a technology that was unloved and criticized for years.

The comeback is the result of the continent’s struggle to meet rising energy demands while reducing carbon emissions. With fossil fuels such as coal falling into disrepute, policymakers say nuclear power must be part of the formula for keeping the lights on.

In Finland, the world’s largest nuclear power station is under construction. Poland wants to install two on the shores of the Baltic Sea, with the first on line by the end of 2020. Italy, the only major industrialized nation without a nuclear plant, says it will start building one or more by 2013.

In Britain, the government has approved 10 sites for nuclear stations. And Germany wants to extend the life of its plants rather than phase them out, as promised.

New realities have scrambled traditional lines of debate. Some environmental activists who were once dead set against nuclear energy have moderated their position to one of grudging acceptance, viewing it as the lesser of two evils in light of global warming.

Opposition among the general public, which peaked after the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, has also declined in many European countries as memories of the disasters recede, safety improves, and electricity consumption gallops along.

Whether all the planned stations will get built, though, is another story. New plants are extremely expensive and take at least 10 years to construct.

In Finland, it hasn’t. Major delays and cost overruns have plagued the highly touted next-generation reactor being built for the new plant.

And there are still plenty of detractors who say that the problem of storing nuclear waste -- which remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years -- has yet to be adequately solved. Critics say officials have fallen back too quickly on nuclear power when they should be investing more money and effort in developing renewable-energy sources, smart grids and electricity-maximizing measures.

“You have to get energy use in focus -- to decrease energy dependence as much as possible and increase energy efficiency,” said Per Bolund, a Green Party member of the Swedish parliament. The Swedish government has opted instead to “think of nuclear as the easy answer.”

About half of Sweden’s electricity supply comes from 10 nuclear stations strung along the southern coast. Ola Altera, deputy energy minister, said the goal of the about-face isn’t to increase that proportion but rather to keep nuclear power in the mix as alternative energy sources come online.

“The idea is not to get more dependent on nuclear,” Altera said. “To the contrary: It’s to make us more diversified.”

Altera’s Center Party was instrumental in enabling the policy reversal in February.

A member of the ruling coalition, the Center Party had historically been staunchly antinuclear and helped spark the national debate that eventually led to the 1980 referendum. But some party leaders began shifting their stance a few years ago, arguing that combating climate change was more important than decommissioning nuclear reactors.

Even so, the abandonment of the party’s previous opposition shocked many observers.

“I’m doing this for the sake of my children and grandchildren,” the Center Party leader, Maud Olofsson, said in February. “I can live with the fact that nuclear power will be part of our electricity supply system for the foreseeable future.”

Altera said polls have shown that a majority of Swedes now accept nuclear power as a fact of their country’s energy supply.

Ludvig Tillman, a researcher on nuclear issues with Greenpeace, doesn’t dispute that. But such a statement tells only part of the story, he said. When people are asked which energy sources they prefer, the vast majority pick renewable sources such as wind, solar and biofuels; the nuclear option scores extremely low.

Moreover, the threat of disaster still hangs over the nuclear industry.

In 2006, the power went out at a plant in Forsmark, and two of the plant’s backup generators failed to kick in. Had the remaining pair of backups also failed, the plant’s cooling system would have stalled, and a disastrous core meltdown could have resulted.

“It’s basically luck that we did not have a very serious accident,” Tillman said. “I don’t think anyone sees nuclear as a true sustainable power source. It’s just something we need to have in between.”

The choice set up by some politicians -- nuclear power versus more carbon emissions -- is a false one, Tillman said. Sweden has virtually eliminated the use of fossil fuels for electricity; nuclear energy, hydropower and, to a smaller extent, wind power account for the entire power supply.

Fossil fuels do contribute to heating, but only about 10%, and that is supposed to be eased out by 2020, Altera said. No one is seriously advocating the construction of coal-fired plants.

Environmentalists say that if any country should be exploiting the potential of renewable energy, it’s Sweden.

Blessed with rivers for hydropower, plenty of gusty areas for harnessing the wind and vast expanses of forest for biomass, Sweden could gradually close down its nuclear plants and make up for their loss purely through alternative energy sources, activists say.

That, along with increased investment in improving energy efficiency, would make a nuclear-free Sweden an achievable goal.

“We have potential for producing large amounts of renewable energy which can’t be produced anywhere else,” said Bolund, the member of parliament. “Right now, we have to decide what energy future we want in Sweden, whether we want to be dependent on nuclear power or use the fantastic potential for renewable power we have.”