By Johan Bergenas – Nuclear safety is again at the forefront of the international security
debate amidst the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan. In Sweden, the
dialogue on nuclear energy has prevailed for four decades. Yet, absent a
significant technological breakthrough or a radical decrease in Sweden’s
electricity needs, economic, environmental and historical trends suggests that
nuclear power is in Sweden to stay-at
least for the foreseeable future.
Each year, nuclear power accounts for over 40 percent of Swedish electricity.
Hydro power produces around 45 percent. Other renewable energy sources
contribute, but are currently far from being a viable replacement for nuclear
current dependency on nuclear energy is partly a result of the country’s
efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to limit its reliance on hydroelectric power and
imported oil. Until the 1960s, Sweden
relied almost exclusively on hydroelectricity to power its industrial sector.
Hydropower, however, proved to be both expensive and environmentally damaging,
which consequentially met considerable popular resistance. In response to
public dissatisfaction, the Swedish government decided to protect the large
northern rivers and streams from further development.
The 1960s also saw the emergence of a nuclear program in Sweden,
first as a secret nuclear weapons program that later came to focus solely on
nuclear energy production. Subsequently, Sweden
became a world-leading nuclear power user, which allowed the country to kick
its addiction to imported oil (in the 1970s, Sweden was the largest per capita
importer of this fossil fuel).
To expand hydroelectric power or to revert to importing oil and gas to substitute for nuclear energy
are hardly options for an environmentally conscious state like Sweden.
Moreover, replacing nuclear power with renewable energy sources is not
currently a realistic option.
Throughout the years, a strong political will and a pragmatic plan to
nuclear program has been largely absent. Public fears about nuclear safety
heightened in 1979 when the “Three Mile Island”
nuclear accident became a catalyst to a Swedish referendum the following year,
which targeted the use of nuclear energy. A majority of Swedes voted for a
so-called nuclear “phase-out” policy, which would, however, only be contingent
on basic needs for electricity, jobs and the Swedish welfare state. The
referendum was also non-binding, placing no legal obligation on the government.
In the last 30 years, no Swedish government has made a serious attempt
at a nuclear phase-out. For example, in light of the Chernobyl
nuclear accident, the Swedish Social Democratic government announced that
1995-1996 would be the target timeframe to commence plans for nuclear
decommissioning. However, in the early 1990s, a center-right government, after
fierce criticism from industry and unions, reversed the decision. At the time, Sweden was facing a financial crisis and nuclear
decommissioning would have cost over SEK 200 billion, and the country would
have faced sharp increases in the price of electricity and lots of jobs lost. Under these conditions, pushing through the
nuclear phase-out policy would have been political suicide.
Today’s economic climate reflects similar troubling financial trends, and Sweden is ever more reliant on nuclear power to
achieve its ambitious environmental goals. Additionally, public opinion has
dramatically shifted in favor of continuing safe Swedish nuclear power
programs, giving policymakers little incentive to stand firmly behind nuclear
phase-out. Indeed in 2010, the Swedish parliament voted to repeal the policy.
What’s next for Swedish nuclear power? One of the biggest lessons
learned from the Japanese crisis is the importance of ongoing modernization,
transparency and regulation of nuclear activities to ensure maximum program
safety. In contrast to eliminating nuclear power, more research and development
to expand safety mechanisms are needed. Here, the Swedish government has an
important role to play, in partnership with the private sector. The continuous
review and improvement of threat
assessments vis-à-vis nuclear installations-including that from terrorist organizations and other sabotage-and the subsequent implementation
of proper security policies are equally imperative. Keeping the nuclear energy
option open and in robust shape will enable Sweden to continue investing in
renewable energy sources , which will substantially contribute toward both energy needs and environmental goals.
This spotlight analysis builds
upon an article published by the author in Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish daily
Photo Credit: The Forsmark
nuclear power plant in Roslagen,
Sweden, 2009 (by