Sweden's vote for -- and against -- nuclear power

A year after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the United States, Sweden has held the referendum on nuclear power which was spurred by the accident. The meaning of the relatively pronuclear results for other countries has to allow for Sweden's unusual energy situation.

For example, there is talk that a strong Swedish nuclear vote might cause Austrian politicians to go to the voters again on whether to open a completed nuclear plant left inactive on the basis of a previous referendum. Yet some suggest that Austria is in a better position to forgo the nuclear option because it has such an alternative source of energy as hydropower from Eastern Europe.

Sweden, on the other hand, is nudged toward the nuclear option by its current heavy reliance on imported oil. This amounts to an estimated 70 percent of its total energy needs, making it among the highest users per capita in the world. At the same time, Sweden is rich in uranium that it has hardly begun to mine.

No wonder Sweden was moving ahead on nuclear energy, despite a vocal antinuclear minority calling for a referendum on the subject. When Three Mile Island came along, concerns about plant safety were added to concerns about disposal of nuclear waste. All parties were propelled into supporting a referendum. And none of the three choices presented to the public called for construction beyond the 12 plants already built or in progress.

As it is, the six operating plants supply Sweden with 25 percent of its electricity -- almost twice the nuclear proportion in the United States, by way of comparison. Four more are completed, waiting to be fueled, and two are being built. All 12 would supply an estimated 40 percent of Sweden's electricity.

In the circumstances, the news may be that as much as 40 percent of the voters went for the strictest option -- not only confining nuclear power to the six operating plants but specifying that even these be phased out within 10 years. This option also includes a ban on uranium mining and a demand for vigorous development of conservation and alternative energy sources.

This minority cannot be ignored in the eyes of Prime Minister Falldin, himself an antinuclear advocate, though he, like Sweden's other leaders, promised to observe the results of the nonbinding referendum. The majority flew in the face of nuclear opponents such as the minister of health and social affairs by giving 58 percent to the two options providing for the completion of the 12 plants. Even here, however, the most open-ended choice received only 18 percent, while 40 percent voted for one designed to phase out the plants in 25 years while requiring such safeguards as local citizen oversight of plant operations.

The pronuclear vote in the vicinity of plants was interpreted as being partly based on preserving jobs, a point raised in other countries, too. The referendum may encourage as much politicking as it eliminates. It is early to say just what the outcome will be. So far, the lesson of Sweden seems to be a mixture of caution and prudence that is worth watching.

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