Swedes come unglued over atomic energy. The question is not whether to scrap nuclear plants, but when

Push the nuclear symbol in front of the normally consensus-loving Swedes, and the political glue of the country comes unstuck. For Swedes, who have no fundamental problems with their welfare state or their cherished neutrality, nuclear energy poses not just environmental hazards. There are sizable political risks as well. The ruling Social Democratic Labor Party, which has established a commission of inquiry to look into the practicalities of Sweden getting out of nuclear energy prematurely, is only too aware of the dangers.

Twice before -- in 1976, and again in 1978 -- governments in Sweden have fallen on the issue of nuclear energy. In March 1980, again under public pressure, the then-ruling Social Democrats held a referendum, rare in Swedish public life, which resulted in Sweden opting to phase out nuclear energy by the year 2010.

Now the Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl, with its severe radioactive fallout over Sweden, is forcing many Swedes to consider pushing that timetable as far forward as possible.

Exploring the practicalities of that option is what the government commission is doing now. It is expected to issue its report by November and a bill could be before the Swedish parliament by May. But the verdict, or even the government's strategy based on that report, is by no means certain. The pressures on the government to give an unambigous signal on how it intends to move forward after Chernobyl will be intense from both anti- and pro-nuclear lobbies.

Environmentalists feel the sooner Sweden exits the nuclear field the better. For them the fallout from Chernobyl -- necessitating the slaughter of thousands of reindeer and costing the country, conservatively, 1 billion kronar ($145 million) so far -- is self-evident proof that nuclear energy is far too dangerous.

But to Swedish technicians, who pride themselves on running one of the world's best and safest nuclear industries, and to businessmen, closing down nuclear plants before they are exhausted is ``madness.''

It would be costly, they argue, to dismantle 12 nuclear reactors with an installed capacity of 9,450 megawatts before the end of their accustomed 25-year lifespan. But the added costs of finding alternative sources of electricity would have to be passed on to the consumer. Right now some 47 percent of Sweden's electricity is supplied from nuclear energy, making electrical rates in Sweden among the cheapest in the world.

In the view of Bo Ekegren of the Swedish Employers' Confederation, the Social Democratic government has painted itself into a corner.

``I can't think of a situation where a government goes to the Swedish people and says we're cutting your electricity, we'll increase your electricity costs, businesses will close down, and people will lose their jobs, but we have to do this because we had a referendum in 1980 which said this.''

Until Chernobyl, the government had another 10 years before having to decide on concrete investment plans. A rush decision to get out of nuclear energy would could put the government in a dilemma, because Sweden doesn't have an abundance of alternative energy sources, and the alternatives would be very costly.

Beyond this, second thoughts that Swedes might initially have had about the wisdom of nuclear energy may have had them blown away by the fallout from the Chernobyl accident.

Sweden's new prime minister, Ingvar Carlsson, says that Chernobyl has strengthened Sweden's conviction that nuclear power must be eliminated.

``The Chernobyl accident,'' he told a labor rally last month, ``has spread radioactive iodine and cesium over our fields, forests, moors, and lakes. We have been forced to take drastic measures that seem strange and frightening.''

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