In a surprising policy shift, Sweden has set its sights on tripling its nuclear power output over the next two decades. This decision comes after decades of gradual phasing out of nuclear energy, which had been a cornerstone of the nation’s energy policy since the 1970s. The move has sparked intense debate among politicians, environmentalists, and experts.
Sweden’s nuclear power journey began in 1980 when a non-binding referendum led to a decision to phase out nuclear energy. In 2016, a majority vote by politicians aimed to replace the remaining six nuclear reactors as they reached the end of their operational lifespans. The prevailing belief at the time was that renewable energy, driven by technological advancements and falling prices, would seamlessly replace nuclear power.
However, the current center-right government, led by Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson’s Moderate Union Party, has taken a new approach. Facing the projected doubling of electricity demand to 300 terawatt hours by 2040 and the commitment to achieve zero emissions by 2045, the government has turned to nuclear power as a solution.
Climate Minister Romina Pourmokhtari recently announced plans to triple Sweden’s nuclear power capacity, requiring the construction of ten new reactors. This ambitious goal is part of a broader strategy to shift from 100% renewable energy to 100% fossil-free energy.
Pourmokhtari noted that existing legal restrictions obstruct a modern vision of nuclear energy. The government is actively working on legislation to relax regulations, remove limits on the number of nuclear reactors, and eliminate municipalities’ veto rights on nuclear projects.
Critics argue that the government’s reliance on nuclear power is a result of political compromises. The ruling coalition, leaning on the support of the radical-right Sweden Democrats, has faced backlash for their climate policies. Some members of the Sweden Democrats deny the climate crisis or its severity, leading to budgetary constraints on environmental and climate initiatives.
Lars Nilsson, a professor of environmental studies at Lund University and a European Climate Advisory Council member, highlighted the historical significance of nuclear energy in Swedish politics. Nilsson expressed doubt about the feasibility and desirability of constructing ten new reactors.
Nilsson pointed out the economic and political risks associated with nuclear power expansion, calling for government guarantees to attract investors. He emphasized that the government’s stance may shift over time, creating uncertainty in the long-term nuclear power plans.
Meanwhile, Sweden’s industry, particularly the steel sector, seeks stability in energy policies. They are betting on green hydrogen as a coal replacement and require a consistent electricity supply. Some industries prefer expanding the electricity grid and wind energy production rather than investing in new nuclear reactors.
Recent European examples have shown that building new nuclear reactors often involves substantial costs and delays. Projects in Finland and the United Kingdom significantly exceeded initial budget estimates, casting doubt on the economic viability of nuclear energy.
A report by energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie indicated that the cost of electricity from nuclear power is at least four times that of wind and solar power when considering both construction and operating expenses. The British government’s guarantee of a fixed price for nuclear power raised questions about market viability.
To attract investors, Sweden’s government might need to provide similar guarantees, deviating from the principle of technology neutrality. Climate Minister Pourmokhtari countered this by asserting that subsidies or price guarantees would not be necessary once legal barriers are removed.
While research is underway for more cost-effective small modular reactors, Nilsson pointed out that their development takes time. Safety concerns, including nuclear waste disposal, accident risks, and nuclear proliferation, are significant factors requiring government oversight.
The Swedish Ministry of Energy emphasized the importance of restoring the nuclear industry for the nation’s energy system stability. They discussed measures such as licensing reforms and credit guarantees to reduce financial risks associated with new nuclear power plants.
Sweden’s decision to expand its nuclear power capacity has ignited a passionate debate about the nation’s energy policy and the balance between environmental goals and energy security. The government faces significant challenges in meeting its ambitious nuclear power targets while ensuring economic feasibility and safety. The outcome of this policy shift will undoubtedly shape Sweden’s energy landscape for years to come.
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