The Swedish government's decision last week to close two nuclear reactors has touched off one of the hottest political debates here since the decision to join the European Union 2-1/2 years ago.
The closure of the two reactors marks the beginning of a phaseout of all 12 of Sweden's nuclear power plants. News of the announcement has saturated the media and has Swedes weighing in on both sides of the nuclear-energy debate.
"Everybody has strong feelings," says Bo Histad, a professor of nuclear physics at Uppsala University, about 60 miles north of Stockholm. "It's almost like religion - you simply believe or don't believe in [nuclear power]."
The decision by the minority Social Democratic Party, which was brokered with the Center and Left Parties, stems from a 1980 referendum and subsequent parliament ruling to phase out the use of nuclear energy by 2010.
Public pressure in Sweden to find alternative energy sources followed the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pa., in 1979. It was aroused again in 1986, after the Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl left large tracts of northern Sweden contaminated with radioactive fallout.
Schedule for close down
Under the agreement announced Feb. 4, the government said it would close two reactors in Barsebck in southern Sweden. The first will be closed by July 1998. The second will close before July 2001, if the resulting loss of electricity production can be compensated for through the use of alternative energy sources and conservation.
The two reactors are not far from Denmark's capital, Copenhagen. The Danish government, long concerned about safety at the Swedish plants close by, hailed the planned closures.
The reactors, owned by the independent company Sydkraft, have a 1,200-megawatt capacity and are among Sweden's oldest.
In 1992, an "event" in the emergency cooling system of Barsebck 2 reawakened antinuclear concerns and resulted in five nuclear reactors throughout Sweden being temporarily closed for modernization.
The announcement of the proposed closures prompted an outcry from industry and trade unions who say decommissioning the country's nuclear power supply will increase energy prices and exacerbate unemployment.
More than half of Sweden's electricity comes from nuclear power. The government said it would meet the deficit through consumer energy savings, wind and water power, and bio-energy, such as using fast-growing trees for fuel for energy plants.
Other reports indicate that coal and petroleum would make up more than 60 percent of the energy supply after the first reactor's closure, with another 25 percent coming from bio-energy and other alternative sources.
The government said the cost of replacing the lost output would be an estimated 9 billion krona ($1.2 billion) over seven years, but gave no details on future energy taxes or pricing.
Swedish industries such as paper, chemical, and steel, as well as mines and engineering companies, have come to rely on cheap electricity. Companies like Volvo and SCA, the country's biggest forestry group, have spoken out against the nuclear decommissioning. The owner of the reactors has vowed to fight the decision. Lands Organization (LO), the nation's largest trade union normally friendly with the Social Democrats, also decried the decision.
But politics has also played a key role. With a 1998 election on the horizon, the Social Democrats are under pressure to keep previous campaign promises both to close nuclear reactors and halve unemployment by 2000. In the early 1990s, the economy took a downturn and unemployment jumped from 2 percent to about 13 percent. It now hovers around 12 percent. The Social Democrats themselves are split over the issue. The party has both pro-nuclear trade unionists and antinuclear environmentalists.
But the most significant implications from this week's decision may be in future political alliances. The Center Party, dubbed the "fourth party" after the opposition coalition of the Christian Democrats, Liberals, and Conservatives, has now aligned itself with the ruling Social Democrats on a significant issue. If it continues to do so in the future, it could mean more support for the government on future economic policies such as the European economic and monetary union (EMU), Europe's proposed single currency. A decision on EMU is expected next fall.
Stop and go with nuclear power
This nuclear phaseout would make Sweden the first country to dismantle its nuclear industry. But Swedes remain skeptical, saying that they have yet to see action.
In the 17 years since the nuclear referendum, translating it into practice has proved difficult. In 1991, for instance, a target date for closure of a nuclear reactor set for 1995-96 was rescinded when it was discovered the closure would not be economically feasible.
Despite government spending on alternative energy sources, they remain problematic. Solar power doesn't work well in northern Sweden, where the sun doesn't even crest the horizon for more than two hours a day in December and January. Hydropower has proved to be the most successful form of alternative energy, but the government cannot build any dams on four commercially viable rivers because the public wants to keep them in their natural state.
Perhaps taking a cue from earlier failures, the government this week removed the 2010 deadline for final phaseout, and instead indicated that the goal would be accomplished as soon as practically feasible. Haken Heden, director of the energy division in the Ministry for Industry and Trade, acknowledged that consumers would see a "moderate" price increase for electricity with the plants' closures but "no sharp increase."
Widespread concerns remain, however, about the high cost of securing replacement energy sources and the threat to jobs from closing the reactors at a time of record unemployment.
A recent poll found that 63 percent of Swedes approved of nuclear energy. But such polls don't register the ambivalence of many here. "It's too early to tell [what the impact will be]," says Lars Bjrdal, a book conservator who lives in Uppsala. "Ordinary people cannot [bear] all these price increases, but it doesn't mean I think nuclear power is safe."