You are here

New reactors in Sweden? Why Vattenfall's application was 'non-news'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
WISE Sweden

On 31 July the Swedish state-owned power company, Vattenfall, submitted a preliminary application to the regulator concerning the construction of one, possibly two nuclear reactors in Sweden. Considering that Sweden long had a total ban on planning new reactors, such a move might be expected to be hot news – particularly since Vattenfall is owned by a government that professes to promote environmentally sound energy solutions. But it wasn’t.

The ban on planning new reactors was lifted in January 2011. New nuclear reactors are now possible, but the total number may not exceed the present ten. In other words, any new reactor has to replace one that is taken off line. Furthermore, the amendment requires any new reactor to be placed in one of the localities that currently host a nuclear plant. 

Vattenfall’s presentation of the initia-tive makes interesting reading. Practically every third sentence of the press release assures the reader that “this does not mean we are planning to build a reactor”. Instead, the purpose of the application, according to Vattenfall, is to obtain a checklist of the requirements that would have to be fulfilled. The regu-lator’s work on the specifications is ex-pected to take about three years. Only then can the company properly judge the scope and business prospects of constructing a new reactor. 

Besides the cost of construction, other factors that will affect the decision are (1) the estimated relationship of supply to demand for electricity on the Swedish and European markets in the late 2020’s, and (2) the availability of financing and interest on the part of partners in the private sector. Vattenfall notes that its owners require that any venture the company engages in has to be “both profitable and sustainable”. This is a new specification, added after the company’s adventures in Germany (brown coal and nuclear) which eventu-ally led to an abrupt change of management in early 2010 and brought the then-Minister of Industry under fire.

Should the venture seem to be potentially profitable, a long and intricate process will ensue. First, the Radiation Safety Authority will examine a detailed application and solicit the views of several agencies (the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management, the Swedish Work Environment Authority) and Svenska Kraftnät, the state-owned public utility that manages the grid. Thereafter, the Authority will make its recommendation to the Government. Parallel with this process, a court will examine the application in light of the requirements of the Environmental Code, focusing on environmental impacts. All in all, approval would probably take 10-15 years. The reactor itself would come on line in 2025, at the earliest.

Political X-factors
Nuclear power is a divisive issue in Sweden, not only between parties but within them. Add to that the distant time horizon and the questions outnumber the answers by far. The decision to lift the ban on ‘new build’ was taken by a Conservative-led coalition of four parties, two of which - the Center Party and the Christian Democrats – have reversed their previous anti-nuclear stance in recent years. The rank-and-file of each are divided. According to the polls, both are dancing around the 4 per cent threshold to representation in Parliament. (The parties’ position on nuclear power is not the reason for the parties’ decline; the reversal of policy on nuclear rather reflects more general factional strife.) In sum, the future of the ruling coalition is highly uncertain. The next general elec-tions are to be held in September 2014.

With the exception of the Greens, the opposition parties that are expected to form a coalition should the current government be ousted have spotty records on nuclear power. The Greens, hardly as large a party in Sweden as in, say, Germany, are alone in their consistent opposition to nuclear. The Left, smallest of the opposition parties, is divided between two priorities: jobs versus the environment. The newly elected party leader, however, has a strong record on environmental issues, energy included. The Social Democrats, largest of the three, are a mixed bag: the most recent party congress formulated the goal of successively replacing the nuclear plant with energy from renewable sources, but at a pace that “poses no threat to either jobs, welfare or the environment”. The newly elected party leader, however, was strongly pro-nuclear when he led the metalworkers’ union. He and the energy spokesperson who commented on Vattenfall’s initiative speak of drafting an energy policy that the whole of Parliament can agree to. Just how strong the party’s commitment to renewables is, and where the Social Democrats might land on the issue 10- 15 years from now, is hard to say. 

Why the application? From a business point of view it is only natural for a nuclear power company to plan for the future. If an inquiry addressed to the re-gulatory authority is the only way to gain a clear picture of future requirements and costs, an application is reasonable enough.

Why state-owned Vattenfall? Over a year has gone by since the government lifted the ban on planning for new reactors. No private actor has stepped for-ward, albeit some major users of energy (the paper-pulp industry, for example) have urged ‘someone’ to take the initiative. It seems likely that the government may have used its influence as owner of Vattenfall to get the ball rolling. A second probable reason is that Vat-tenfall owns 70.4% of Ringhals AB, two of whose reactors are, even today, aged, faulty and costly. One commentator indicated Ringhals, south of Gothen-burg, as the likely site of renewal.

Why now? Sweden is at mid-term in the current election period. Waiting until closer to the next election would heighten the risk of political fission that nuclear power implies – for everyone but the Greens. 

Sources: The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority: / Vattenfall’s press release: 33D6727E24052BF75C979319646ED / and Application: Ansökan Dokumentnr 106880-M-2423 (pdf, in Swedish) Dagens Nyheter (web edition) 7 August, and miscellaneous media notices
Contact: Charly Hultén at WISE Sweden

WISE Sweden