The march 23 referendum on nuclear power in Sweden will bring to a close Sweden's most popular and controversial issue of the last decade. Although the vote will not solve the energy question for this highly oil-dependent nation, it will allow Swedes to blow off steam on the only topic since the American war in Vietnam that has provoked such fervent emotion.
Three out of five political parties and the largest trade union favor atomic energy. Only two are against. Until the last few weeks, though, the sense in the streets was that the "nejs" (noes) would win because of their overwhelming campaign of street speakers, leaflets, advertising, rock concerts, seminars, and media interviews.
However, the "ja" (yes) side in unobtrusively showing its strength with grass-roots, let's-look-at-the-nickel- and-dimes electioneering. More significantly, workers are beginning to discuss how a nonnuclear Sweden would affect their jobs.
The Social Democrats, Sweden's largest party; the Moderates, who picked up the most votes in last September's general election; and the Liberals, the smallest of the "bourgeois" parties, support a qualified yes.
The Social Democrats and the Liberals want Sweden to use the six reactors now operating and the further six planned until the end of their lifespan: 25 to 30 years. They also want the state to take over the power plants.
The Moderates, Sweden's most right-wing party, agree to the 12 reactors running for 25 years but not to nationalization. Party chief Gosta Bohman has commented that he would like to see more than 12 in order to guarantee the country's future as an industrial country and welfare state.
Lined up in the "no" camp are disparate bedfellows, the Centrists and Communists. The Center party, headed by the Prime Minister of the present coalition government, Thorbjorn Falldin, is often accused of being a one-issued party because of its vehement opposition to nuclear power.
The Communists, who normally align themselves with the Social Democrats, say they are defending the man in the street by joining the Centrist line of dismantlng the six generating reactors within 10 years.
Sweden's largest and most powerful trade Unions, publicly supported nuclear power on behalf of wage earners, long before its party, the Social Democrats, did. The union rightly hoped that its adamant stance would force the fence-sitting Social Democrats to join the rank and file.
Social Democrats leader Olof Palme launched the referendum idea last spring after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, Seizing the opportunity to switch from the pro- to the anti-nuclear camp. Mr. Palme's aboutface was widely seen as a ploy to boost his election chences. The strategy backfired.
An independent committee of experts reported to the nation that turning off atomic energy will cost 75 billion krone ($17 billion). Over the next 20 years, each wage earner would pay about $4,700 for doing without the reactors. Energy-intensive industries such as paper, pulp, and steel could expect closures and widespread layoffs -- even with vast coal imports.
Nuclear power now provides 25 percent of Sweden's electricity and 5 percent of its total energy consumption. Without it, energy-intensive industries could face electricity price hikes of 60 to 70 percent. The rest of industry and households should prepare for rises of 35 to 40 percent.
Polls indicate that Swedish citizens have reversed their opinions since last spring. Now about 45 percent of those polled say they will vote yes, while only 30 percent have declared they will cast a no vote. The rest claim they have not decided or will not vote. Pollsters expect voting attendance to drop from the norm of 90 percent for a general election to 80 percent.
As a win for atomic energy appears more certain, the fate of the current Prime Minister looks more uncertain. Mr. Falldin maintains that he can continue governing a nuclear Sweden despite his opposition. Political observers doubt it and expect the government to fall, bringing summer elections.
Observers and some politicians wish that Sweden hadn't scheduled a referendum at all. One Finnish politician voiced their anxieties by asking aloud what no one else had dared to to here: "Is it not rather irresponsible of elected government officials to put the complex issue of nuclear power said, therefore, energy to a mass vote?" But Swedish politicians have left themselves a way out by makint the referendum nonbinding.