New York Times - 5 Feb 09

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 22 Aug 09)

Sweden Takes Another Look at Nuclear Power

By James Kanter
Published: February 5, 2009

The Swedish government on Thursday proposed refreshing its nuclear reactors, making the nation the latest to consider letting the technology play a major role in its energy plans.

Swedes voted nearly three decades ago to phase out nuclear power, and government officials said Thursday's announcement marked a significant change.

"It's quite a big step for us," Ola Altera, state secretary for enterprise and energy, said. "Everyone has moved their preferred positions to reach this compromise," Mr. Altera added, who noted that his Center Party, had long been skeptical about any nuclear construction in Sweden.

Under the Swedish plan, which still needs approval from Parliament, replacement reactors would gradually be built at the 10 sites where reactors are still operating. "There has been pressure from industry to expand the use of nuclear in Sweden, but that's not the idea," Mr. Altera said.

Other parts of Europe, including Italy and Germany, have also signaled a renewed interest in nuclear as concerns grow over energy security and climate change, and as worries about safety risks diminish. Many restrictions on nuclear power in Europe were imposed after accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and at Chernobyl, in the Soviet Union, in 1986.

In Britain last year, the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown took a similar decision to Sweden's to replace aging nuclear plants, a move that analysts said demonstrated a new era of pragmatism.

The Labor government had previously branded nuclear power as an unattractive option.

Both Britain and Sweden "have had to face a situation the electricity they generate from existing reactors would be extremely difficult to substitute with anything else but nuclear," Luis Echávarri, director general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency, an organization that advises industrialized countries, said.

Britain generates about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear, while Sweden still generates about 45 percent of its power from the technology.

Using renewable sources to generate those same quantities of power would present huge technical and financial challenges, and might even be impossible, while using coal or less-polluting natural gas would make it much harder for either country to meet its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Mr. Echávarri said.

Sweden already generates about 45 percent of its electricity from hydro power, but public opinion has become more favorable toward nuclear power. Sweden is also aiming by mid-century to have no net emissions of greenhouse gases by using, in part, a combination of low-carbon nuclear power and renewable energies like wind- and hydro power.

Even so, Mr. Altera, it could take until 2023 to open the first new reactor in Sweden because of the cost and risks involved.

He mentioned the difficulties experienced by Areva, a French nuclear constructor that is building a new reactor at the site at Olkiluoto, Finland, where the project is behind schedule and vastly over budget.

The experience "doesn't make it obvious that there will be new reactors" in Sweden, Mr. Altera said.