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Has Sweden learned to love nuclear power?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Charly Hultén at WISE Sweden

Outside Sweden, the decision to allow what the British call "new build" that was taken in the Swedish Parliament June 17 is widely thought to mean that an eminently "green" Sweden has accepted nuclear power as part of the recipe to "save the climate". Inside Sweden the implications are far less clear. Even the ruling coalition has two contradictory versions of what the decision means!

For one thing, the decision was taken with a margin of only two votes. Had MPs been able to vote their conscience – the party whips were lashing on all sides – the Government's Bill may not have passed at all. The opposition has said that if they win the election this Fall, they will tear the decision up. So, talk of "Sweden" having changed "its" mind about nuclear is a very misleading generalization.

Nuclear Monitor 's editors have asked for an assessment of what has happened, what it means, and what is likely to happen when the dust has settled. Even the first part is complicated. Answers to the other two questions tend to depend on who you are talking to. All I can do is report different assessments

As an issue, nuclear power in Sweden continues to split both parties and coalitions rather than differentiate between them. Consequently, few political leaders can afford to be categorical. It is also important to understand that the parliamentary system seems to be tending toward a two-party system: the ruling Conservative-led 'Alliance' vs. the so-called 'Red-Green coalition' (see box 'Understanding Sweden').

The two bills voted into law had three elements:

  1. The existing nuclear plant may be replaced by new reactors – no more than ten in number, but each producing significantly more electricity – in the three communities where reactors currently operate. No new reactor can be put on line unless an existing reactor is permanently retired. Laws calling for total phase-out of Sweden's nuclear program in 2010 and a ban on planning and construction of new reactors have been scrapped.
  2. The insurance requirement for licensed operators has quadrupled from 3 billion Swedish Krona to 12 billion SEK (US$1.6 billion or 1.2 billion euro). This part is to take effect August 1.
  3. Owners of nuclear power reactors will have unlimited financial liability for the consequences of nuclear accidents. Sounds good, but there are limits -- more below.

A fourth point, a ban on public subsidies, direct or indirect, surfaced when the Parliamentary committee responded to a motion filed by Sven Bergström, Center Party (see below).

No commitment to renewables – described by the Minister for Energy on June 17 as "the most ambitious in the world" – was mentioned in the bills.

Understanding Sweden: Deep background
Nuclear energy has been a divisive political issue in Sweden from its first beginnings in the 1960s. But until the late 1970s Swedish energy policy was largely an internal matter within the ruling Social Democratic Party. From the 1950s into the 1970s, Sweden also had a secret defense agenda that included a nuclear bomb. But, in fact, the Social Democrats were divided on the issue of nuclear, and the shock wave following the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in the USA, led to a decision to let the people, not the parties, decide the future of nuclear energy. Six of a planned 12 publicly financed reactors were nearing completion, but public opinion had clearly shifted away from nuclear.

A national referendum was held in 1980. It was a strange affair. The people could vote for one of three alternatives:
Linje 1 (Conservatives): Continued reliance on nuclear energy. No limits.
Linje 2 (Social Democrats and Liberals): Continued expansion from 6 to 12 reactors, followed by a gradual phase-out of all 12, as renewable sources of energy became available.
Linje 3 (Center Party, Christian-Democrats, Left): No to nuclear: stop construction and decommission the existing 6 reactors as soon as possible. (The Green Party did not yet exist.)

The Yes-but-No alternative got most votes. Linje 1 got only 18%. There were dissidents in all parties; not even the Conservatives were totally unified.

Shortly after the referendum Parliament passed a law that envisaged a gradual phase-out of the nuclear program. All 12 reactors would be taken off line by 2010. Only two have been decommissioned so far.

Sadly, the main legacy of the referendum was a bitter polarization of opinion – which to some extent has dampened political interest in renewables as alternatives.

Times change. The political front lines on energy policy today are quite different from those in 1980. Today, Sweden is governed by a Conservative-led "Alliance" in which Center, Liberals and Christian-Democrats participate. A recent change of course on the part of the Center Party leadership made it possible for the Alliance to introduce the two Bills that were voted into law June 17. Many Center voters are still 'in shock'; how they choose to vote in this year's election may decide the fate of the Alliance.

The three Opposition parties -- Social Democrats, Greens and Left -- are running on a common platform that includes a call for phase-out of nuclear. Whereas the party leaders are agreed, the Social Democratic and Left parties have many dissidents, who are more worried about unemployment than 'sustainable energy solutions'. In Sweden there is, namely, a common belief that nuclear energy means cheap electricity, and cheap electricity means jobs.

Finally, the fact remains that the Social Democrats were responsible for the failure to phase out nuclear in the twenty-odd years they ruled since 1980. Has the party changed its stripes?

How we got here
The Alliance was able to win the last election (2006), thanks in part to a pledge not to embark on any new policy regarding nuclear energy. The purpose of this pledge, repeated in the Cabinet's program declaration, was to keep the Center Party's voter-base intact by neutralizing nuclear energy as an issue.

In February 2009 the Alliance parties reached an agreement, whereby phase-out would be abandoned and old reactors might be replaced with new. At the same time, a commitment to renewable energy sources would be written into Alliance energy policy. The agreement was possible thanks to a reversal of policy in the Center Party. They have traded their once firm opposition to nuclear power for Alliance support for renewables – which, critics say, would have been given, anyway. After all, even the most nuclear-friendly politician knows the value of 'greenwash'.

The government introduced its Bills on March 23 -- ironically, on the day of the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 referendum. Swedish parliamentary procedure then gives the parties time to file motions on a Bill; the motions are referred to the relevant committee, which review the Bill in the light of the motions. The (possibly amended) Bill then is put to a vote.

Three motions were filed. The Alliance moved to adopt the Bills; the Red-Green coalition moved to reject them. The third motion was filed by Center Party MP Sven Bergström, who had declared his opposition to the new party line. He was ostensibly one of four dissidents among the Alliance parties' MPs. His demands:

1. The Government should postpone rescinding the current ban on new reactors until 2011. After all, the Alliance had pledged not to change energy policy during the current term of office.

2. The Government should be more specific about the agreed-on principle that "no subsidies, direct or indirect" will be extended to new nuclear reactors.

3. The Bill needs clarification on the question of liability. Power companies should, as in Germany, bear "unlimited liability" for any damage, including impaired effects, resulting from nuclear accidents that occur in their facilities.

The first two points were agreed to; the third, handled by another committee, took more time and hardly resulted in anything approaching the German law.

Bergström declared his satisfaction and swung 'round to support the Bills.

He admits that his motion was drafted "in consultation with" the party leadership, and in a newspaper interview May 19 he related how some of his conscience-torn Center colleagues had come and congratulated him: "Now it will be easier for them to vote Yes," he said. In all fairness, Bergström may be credited with having revived the ban on public subsidies. Nonetheless, the prime purpose of the motion appears to have been to secure passage of the Bill and to pacify those Center voters who have trouble swallowing the new party line.

Bills 2009/2010:172 and 173 were put to the vote on June 17. Two Center dissidents followed their conscience and voted No. The Bills were passed with a margin of two votes. It is fair to say that the Bills voted into law June 17 are a new attempt by the Alliance parties to neutralize the issue in time for the election this coming September. But, is Center's voter-base still intact this time 'round?

Bones of contention
Public subsidies
The original agreement on energy policy among the Alliance parties included a ban on public financing of new reactors. The Bill put before the Parliament referred to that agreement, but did not actually include the ban among the amendments the new law would entail. This 'detail' resurfaced in the parliamentary committee's treatment of the above-mentioned motion filed by Sven Bergström. The committee writes: "As the concept, 'subsidy' does not always have a precise definition, the Committee sees some value in a clarification by the Government of what is intended in this particular case. The Committee recommends that Parliament unequivocally state as its opinion, that public support to nuclear energy cannot be counted on." So voted the Parliament. The Committee, for its part, instructed the Government to clarify its position.

But, what exactly does "cannot be counted on" mean? How broad, how strong a ban is it? Does it mean (A) Under no circumstances will public funding ever be extended to nuclear power projects? (B) The present Government and Parliament will not spend public money on such projects? or (C) Any consortium that plans such a project will have to present an economic plan that covers all costs from other sources, but in the event of a financial emergency public funding might be made available?

Secondly, what is meant by "public support"? The current Finnish project at Olkiluoto offers a regular catalogue of kinds of subsidies, overt and covert. Has the Parliament voted to rule out credit guarantees? For example.

At this writing neither question has been answered. Moreover, most observers assume that the ruling would apply only to Swedish tax money, that the door remains open, should other governments wish to participate.

"Unlimited liability"
First of all, it should be noted that "unlimited liability", as used here, is a narrow legal term. I quote from the Bill (section 7.1, p 53): "An unlimited liability means ... only that the legislator has not set any fixed limit to the liability." The previous law relating to nuclear responsibility put a ceiling on the amount an actor would have to pay, the new law does not. Ergo liability is 'unlimited'.

The former law limited a company's actual liability to the amount of its insurance coverage; its assets were protected. The new law removes that protection. Bankruptcy due to a major accident is now possible – but unlikely, in the Government's view.

In keeping with the requirements of the Paris Convention public money will be used to compensate claim-holders who have not been able to receive compensation from the nuclear reactor owner (section 7.1, p 52). This is of particular importance in Sweden inasmuch as the law holds the reactor owner liable for damages. In Sweden reactor owners are subsidiaries of the power giants, and have very limited assets of their own. The Bill explicitly exempts the power companies from liability (section 7.1, p 54):"That liability is unlimited does not mean that the owners of a reactor owner shall be held liable to pay out compensation for damage due to a radiological accident."

Here, most of the debate is due not to a lack of clarity in the Bill, but to a misunderstanding of the scope of the technical term. Still, there are questionable points. Should the power giants be protected from financial liability? It is, after all, their greed that made the owners force the operators at Barsebäck (now decommissioned) to disregard a faulty valve in the cooling system for months. The problem was detected during the season of peak demand, and the owner ordered continued production. The parent company pocketed the profits. Problems like this will continue as long as those who have a profit interest are held 'blameless'.

The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation urges that nuclear power companies be held fully liable for any damage their reactors cause. Nonetheless, the Bill is an improvement over the previous law. Greater liability will hopefully mean a sharper focus on safety issues, the SSNC concludes.

What next?
The new law limits the number of Swedish reactors to ten, but capacity might increase 3- to 4-fold in each. Will the new law actually result in ten new Swedish reactors? Will it result in any, at all?

Perhaps the only way to describe the outlook is to present a spectrum of comments as to the consequences of the vote. Let us start with the industry itself.

OKG, owner-operator of the three reactors at Oskarshamn, is already at the drawing boards. Their oldest reactor is ready for retirement, and the change in policy has been long awaited.

The Alliance has voiced two diametrically opposed assessments:

1. The Liberal Party is now Sweden's most nuclear-friendly party. Liberal spokesman Carl B. Hamilton sees the vote as a breakthrough long overdue. No longer will 'policy' stand in the way of technological development. Hamilton is highly critical of the arbitrary deadlines and priorities that have kept nuclear power in Sweden from developing as it has in other countries, like France. "Finally! The door stands open!" Glut is no problem, not when cables connect Sweden with the rest of Europe. Investors are sure to step forward; nuclear is a money-maker. The only clouds on Hamilton's horizon are interest rates. Unless interest rates remain low, financing may prove difficult.

2. All along, Center Party leadership (and MP Sven Bergström) has claimed that lifting the ban on 'new build' means nothing. The negative incentives that increased financial liability implies will only make nuclear even less attractive to investors. And where has nuclear energy ever been built without massive public subsidies? Just look at the Finnish reactor at Olkiluoto!

The Center Party is also hard-pressed to show environmental gains. The party has two key Cabinet posts: Industry and Energy. Both ministers stress that the Alliance has committed to public investments in renewable energy, notably, bio-fuels. Maud Olofsson, the party leader and Minister of Industry, goes so far as to say that Center's backing off on nuclear was necessary in order to break a decades-long deadlock and get that commitment from other Alliance parties. There are two problems here. The gains, especially in wind power, the Ministers point to were made before the party's about-face; the gains they expect were not included in the Bill, and the "most ambitious commitment in the world" has yet to see the light of day. Secondly, there is the problem of glut on the electricity market. How may it be expected to impact on industry's willingness to invest in in-house co-generation and energy efficiency? How will it affect the market for electricity from renewable sources?

Maria Wetterstrand, MP and spokesperson for the Greens, deplores what the party considers "the most far-reaching energy policy decision that the Parliament has ever taken. It can lead to a dependency on nuclear power for the next 100 years and will have consequences for 100,000 years" (Riksdagen, press release June 17).

Jonas Sjöstedt, former MEP for the Left, worries that continued dependence on nuclear energy will heighten pressures to start mining uranium in Sweden – which would have disastrous consequences for the environment. He also points out that any ban on subsidies can easily be circumvented (

The Red-Green Opposition have declared that if they win the election they will tear up the June 17 decision and reinstate the ban: "Nuclear is a dangerous technology. It should be phased-out successively -- at a pace consonant with high employment, welfare and the ability of renewables to meet Sweden's energy needs" (Riksdagen, press release May 27).

There has been some discussion in Danish environmental circles of the impact overproduction of electricity in Sweden may have on Danish wind power. The key factor is whether or not glut leads to falling prices. This may not be the case, inasmuch as Sweden plans to produce for the European market and has no reason to give any discounts.

To sum up...
The most uncertain factor here in Sweden is the outcome of the September election. As things stand today public sympathies are fairly evenly divided between the two blocs. But, two of the Alliance parties are dangerously close to the 4% threshold that qualifies parties for representation in Parliament. One of the two is Center. If either of the parties sinks under the threshold, the Red-Green coalition will most likely win.

Does the new policy mean that Swedish nuclear is on the rebound? Yes and no.

Yes: The phase-out has been abandoned, but then de facto the deadline has been abandoned for many years. At the turn of the century, who could expect all eleven of the remaining reactors to be taken off line by 2010? One might have hoped for more than just one (Barsebäck 2 in 2002), but all eleven?

No: Sweden is divided on nuclear power. Center has shown where its loyalties lie. Voters who don't like nuclear power can only vote Red or Green this coming September. On the other hand, just how the Red-Green coalition will perform once in office, is hardly a sure thing.

Source and contact: Charly Hultén at WISE Sweden

WISE Sweden