The country will overturn a three-decade ban on new plants
In a stunning reversal, over the objections of left-wing green legislators, Sweden has determined it will overturn its long standing ban on new nuclear power plants. The unexpected news hit like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky.
The Wall Street Journal reports the impetus for the change is the European gas crisis which took place in January. The unprecedented change in policy came as the country’s political leadership realized the security of its energy supply was at risk.
Sweden has ten nuclear power plants (map) producing 9 GWe of power. It had 12, but closed two after voting in 1980 to eliminate all of them. Now Sweden will replace the plants as they come to the end of their useful life. The country’s political leadership realized it had no viable alternative to replacing them with other fuel sources. Getting natural gas from Russia seemed the least likely of its available alternatives.
According to a report in the New York Times, Ola Altera, state secretary for enterprise and energy said, “It’s quite a big step for us. Everyone has move their preferred positions to reach this compromise.”
Minority party tips the balance
The Associated Press reported that the agreement was made possible after a compromise by the Center Party, a minority group in the current ruling coalition, which has long opposed new nuclear power plants.
Party leader Maud Olofsson (right) said, “I’m doing this for the sake of my children and grandchildren. I can live with the fact that nuclear power will be part of our electricity supply system.”
Energy security is the key issue
The New York Times also points out that both Sweden and the U.K. are in similar positions. Their aging nuclear power plants provide base load demand. Only new nuclear plants can fill the need for electricity generation capacity.
Luis Echavarri, (right) Director General of the Organization for Cooperation and Development (OECD) Nuclear Energy Agency, told the WSJ, the “spat” over natural gas supplies between Russia and the Ukraine, which affected much of Europe, “helped people understand what security of supply means . . . and how risky it is to be dependent on imports for your energy needs.”
He told the New York Times the similarities between Sweden and the U.K.are that they “have had to face a situation the electricity they generate from existing reactors would be extremely difficult to substitute for anything else but nuclear.”
Political fight not over yet
Sweden’s powerful Social Democrats oppose the move. Party leader Mona Sahlin (right) told the Swedish news media the decision is “short-sighted.” She added, “I am not convinced the future of nuclear energy policy calls for nuclear power.” She vowed to make it a campaign issue when elections are held in September 2010.
However, she may have a tough fight on her hands. Swedish public opinion polls have shown rising support for nuclear energy due to the lack of viable alternatives. World Nuclear News reports a majority of Swedes responding to public opinion polls favor nuclear energy.
Renewables can’t fill the gap
Sweden gets about 40% of its electricity from hydropower, but renewables have dropped 10% in the past decade as a factor in the overall energy mix. At OECD Luis Echavarri cited the ”huge technical challenges” that might make it impossible for Sweden to provide the same quantities of power (9 GWe) using renewable sources. He added that using coal or natural gas would make it much harder for Sweden to meet its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
He said that his agency predicts that share of nuclear power in the global power mix will rise from 16% today to 22% by 2050.
Elsewhere in Europe, Italy is moving towards replacing some of its planned new coal-fired power plants with nuclear energy. The situation in Germany is less certain, but Chancellor Andrea Merkel returned from the G-8 meeting in Tokyo in July 2008 with a new determination to change her country’s planned phase out of its 17 nuclear power plants. Both countries import about one-third of their natural gas from Russia which has turned out to be an unreliable fuel supplier.
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