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Do jobs trump environment? Bucolic Swedish town faces uranium dilemma.

The Swedish town of Oviken, whose pristine natural surroundings have made it popular with tourists, has the blessing – and burden – of uranium deposits below its soil.

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With the snow-flecked mountains on the horizon and dense forest brushing against pebble beaches, the region's natural beauty has made it a domestic and international tourism destination. A villager who declined to give her name confides that there have already been some complaints. A Russian tourist said that a nearby windmill ruined its natural beauty. “Imagine what a mine would entail,” she says.

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Fear of a Fukushima

Sweden has mined uranium only once before, during a brief quest to fuel its own reactors, but the Ranstad site was closed in the 1960s.  

“We’ve had one mine and we’ve seen what happens to the environment,” said lawmaker Marie Nordén of the Social Democrats, the main opposition party, on Swedish Public Service Radio earlier this month. The party's motion on March 14 to ban uranium mining was blocked by other members of parliament.

“Analyzing potential consequences where you look at jobs and environmental effects, both in the short and long term, is not done properly,” says economist Ing-Marie Green at the National Agricultural College. “There are no independent assessments carried out by the authorities, assessments come from the companies own hired-in analysts.”

To go ahead with a potential mine, CPM would have to apply for a permit from the National Environmental High Court.

Regardless of nuclear power's fraught history – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and most recently, Fukushima – Sweden does still need nuclear power. This winter, as several reactors in the fleet of 10 were shut down for maintenance and security checks after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Sweden had to crank up its oil-burning generators down south to cope with the electricity demand.

While the antinuclear lobby still has many sympathizers, Göran Follstad, who moved north from Stockholm to breed horses many years ago, also speaks of environmental concerns – but as an incentive for Sweden to mine its own uranium. ”We have high environmental standards and strict laws here,” he says. ”It’s our moral responsibility to mine it by ourselves rather relying on developing countries who don’t protect their workers.”

While Follstad and his neighbor Kalle Malm have agreed to talk openly about the potential mine, many other villagers refuse to give their names and some shy away from the topic altogether. ”In the next door village, the prospectors were welcomed with a shotgun, so they didn’t drill there,” Malm says.

He and his two brothers have stayed on in Oviken to live on the family farm. Tractors litter the yard and in their car repair shop, a vintage American car is being lovingly restored. Mr. Malm works part-time for emergency services to make ends meet. 

One villager who is keeping tabs on the prospectors is retiree Diana Fernlund. On her floral kitchen wallpaper, she has pinned a geological survey of the creek and the hills with tracts lined in black marker. They show where the uranium ore is at its densest. She not only fears pollution but thinks there are better ways than mining to make a living in the north.

"This is paradise. This could be Sweden’s Miami, a place for people like me to enjoy their older years,” she says.

Ms. Fernlund moved here from southwestern Sweden to be close to her daughter, who runs a horse trekking business nearby, and her grandchildren. She has little sympathy for the young’s concerns that there are no jobs.

”They can take care of us,” she says, alluding to Sweden’s still strong welfare state where tax money pays for the care of the elderly.

Ann Törnkvist contributed reporting. 


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