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Thinking about Sweden's nuclear future

Gabriel Stein · 16 Mar 2011, 13:56

Published: 16 Mar 2011 13:56 GMT+01:00

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Following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the United States, Sweden held a public referendum on the future of nuclear power which led to a Riksdag decision to halt further development of nuclear power plants and phase out nuclear power by 2010.

In 2009, however, the centre-right Alliance government announced it was reversing the phase-out in response to concerns about climate change. And in July 2010, the Riksdag voted to replace aging nuclear reactors at the three existing plants.

Sweden currently ten reactors operating at three nuclear power plants - Forsmark, Oskarshamn, and Ringhals - with ten operational nuclear reactors, which produce about 45 percent of the country's electricity.

Each site has been plagued by safety breaches, with the most recent serious incident occurring in July 2006 at Forsmark when two backup generators failed to start following a loss of power at the plant.

Frigyes Reisch, an associate professor at the Department for Nuclear Power Safety at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), is a leading expert on nuclear safety.

He has worked for the International Atomic Energy Association and at the Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate, SKI, for 27 years.

On Tuesday, he answered a few questions about how the situation in Japan may impact the nuclear energy development in Sweden.

Do you think people in Sweden should be concerned with nuclear power?

Yes. I think so. The problem is that you always get surprises, Three Mile Island and so on. And now again a surprise. No one in the world would have expected this.

Could what happened in Japan occur in Sweden?

I hope not. It can happen in one reactor, but I think even if a catastrophe did happen in Sweden it would be handled more effectively.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said he could say with certainty that the same situation could not occur in Sweden, partly because there are no tsunamis and earthquakes. Do you agree?

Unexpected things can happen, like at the Forsmark nuclear power plant, when the power disappeared in 2006. But the people in the control room fixed that in 20 minutes.

What effect will this have on the construction of new nuclear power plants in Sweden?

More questions will be asked and it will take longer time and more discussions before they arrive to a conclusion to build or not.

Do you still support nuclear power?

I still support nuclear power, but I want to take it easy.

Story continues below…

I’m not happy about the increase in Sweden’s nuclear power output. To increase power in a nuclear reactor, you have to increase the fuel temperature. The higher the fuel temperature the nearer you come to the melting point. So the margin to melting is diminished and we are losing the safety margins against unexpected events.

They calculate a thousand scenarios, but the 1,001st scenario can occur when you don’t expect and then it’s nice to have extra safety margins. No one can guarantee that the one scenario comes that we didn’t account for.

This started 20 yeas ago when there were 12 nuclear reactors in Sweden. Then two reactors were closed so there were ten reactors producing the same amount of energy as 12 had been producing. This has continued and continued. They’ve recognized that it’s very easy to increase power and get more profit without enormous investments like a new power plant.

Why are power plants increasing nuclear energy output?

Money, it is a very minor investment to get a lot of energy -- a lot of megawatts for a minimal investment.

Gabriel Stein (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

14:43 March 16, 2011 by Satch
An excellent argument to build more plants rather than just increase the output in the existing reactors.
23:00 March 16, 2011 by Rolle
Very interesting interview. I'm not by any means an expert on the subject, but i'm very interested in all matters related to nuclear energy.

I really hope Mr. Reisch wasn't being overconfident or 'cocky' when he said that "even if a catastrophe did happen in Sweden it would be handled more effectively." I always thought japanese nuclear techinicians were extremly well trained and prepared to handle the most difficult scenarios, and yet look how this whole thing turned out...

On the other hand we need the nuclear power to develop our industry, but we need our power to be both eco-friendly and safe (something nuclear power plain and simply isn't, since it's too much of a wild horse), so we face a pivotal dilemma. Whatever we are going to decide on the subject must be subject of a great national debate.
18:56 March 17, 2011 by SweAbroad
270 people die in traffic accidents in Sweden every year. That's a fact.

Why is there no demand for a national debate on banning cars?

70 000 people where diagnosed with cancer in Sweden in 2007. That's a fact.

Why are people so emotional about nuclear power, which actually brings important benefits, compared to e.g. cancer?

The problem is that it's all about emotions. I'm afraid having a national debate or referendum based on the ignorance and fears of the general population is not going to be better now than when it was decided to keep driving on the left hand side of the road in the 1955 referendum. How clever.. Luckily, it was overruled later and Sweden got right hand side traffic in 1967 (at a much higher cost), otherwise the country would probably have been stuck forever like the Brits and commonwealth.

Come with a better solution! Then, I am happy to discuss closing nuclear power plants.
19:22 March 17, 2011 by engagebrain
Nuclear reactors have the potential to cause enormous destruction and their waste is a gift that future generations will not thank us for.

There are alternatives that carry none of the risks that Japan and its neighbours now face.

In Japan nuclear power is turning a disaster into a catastrophe - even if the reactors are brought under control the financial costs are going to enormous and wipe out any claim nuclear power has to being affordable.
23:00 March 17, 2011 by Rolle
My good friend abroad, the thing is that people fears and emotions should be taken into account in a democracy. I agree with you chances are people won't vote for nuclear plants if we took the subject to a refferendum tomorrow. But taking the matter to a broad national debate means more than just voting, it has to do with making relevant information available to the public, and on which national consensus can be reached.

We don't ban cars simply because there is not a real risk a single car' malfunction could wipe out one third of our population. Anyway, if you must know i'm not entirely against nuclear power, since it's already here and we pretty much deppend on it; i just would like to see it stalling, and then gradually disappearing, given a better alternative.
08:25 March 18, 2011 by Rey Stockholm
I aree with the comments that this is all about emotion not facts.

A minimum of 100,000 people will have died in Japan, 400,000 in last asian tsunami - - no debate on warning systems or sea defences.

A nuclear plant melts down a little and releases tiny amounts of radiation - end of the world apparently

We have to accept trisk in everything in modern society - there is no alternative to Nucllear with a growing population - fossil fuels are polluting and so called Eco methods simply a joke
10:48 March 18, 2011 by pjtaipale
Reactions to the crisis in Fukushima have been really, really irrational. For instance, shutdowns in German nuclear plants... crazy. Shutting down and then ramping up production increases risks - even if just marginally, but anyway. It would be better to think first. With nuclear, you shouldn't work on your instincts.

And postponing modernization and building new reactors means that old reactors are in use longer. My particular concern is the Russian Chernobyl-type (RWBK) reactors at Sosnovyi Bor, on the shore of the Baltic Sea between St. Petersburg and Estonian border. The Nordic electric pool has been buying Cherno-electricity because there's no own capacity. Totally irresponsible, because those RWBK plants have the same hazardous graphite moderation - designed for weapons material production - as the plant in Chernobyl.

Having a meltdown in a 40-year-old BWR plant in Japan is not nice, it produces some radiation risk, but it's not a disaster (compared to e.g. the direct impacts of tsunami, or the hydroelectric plant / dam that crashed in Japan and destroyed 1800 homes) even if things get as bad as they can go. The RWBK design is potentially much worse. New reactors are incredibly more safe.
14:38 March 18, 2011 by Doreen1
What an insightful comment from Rey Stockhom at 8.27. No one will die from radiation at the nuclear plant, but 1000s of fatalities can be expected from the tsunami. Yet the media chooses to focus on which event?

I think the answer shows the bias of those within the media. Is the public receiving full, factual and impartial information, not just on this issue, but generally?
15:15 March 18, 2011 by Observant
Oh my God! When will people ever learn?

We have a person here, Frigyes Reisch, who states that if a Nuclear incident happened here in Sweden it would be handled more effectively than Japan handled their incident.

Swedes THINK they can ALWAYS do better - just look at the way Swedes handles the Olof Palmé murder - T H A T tells the public how the Swedes will handled any future nuclear incidents here or any other major incident(s) for that matter.

If the Swedes were REALLY serious on this nuclear issue then they would phase them out and replace them with WIND or SOLAR energy.

Or perhaps the truth is that Sweden has NO scientists or experts capable to bring such WIND or SOLAR energy into being.

One will never beat NATURAL sources of power.
15:52 March 18, 2011 by jackx123

close down all the reactors and stop importing oil. only then will the green schmucks learn that they will have to take the bicycle between stockholm and gothenburg in -20 degrees.
17:15 March 18, 2011 by schmuck281
Just as an exercise, why not simply take the nuclear power plants off line for one week.

At the end of that period people can debate the alternatives. By candlelight.

That should make for a mo\re informed debate
18:33 March 19, 2011 by RobinHood
"And now again a surprise. No one in the world would have expected this."

I would have thought a nuclear power station built on a fault line between two very dynamic tectonic plates, and next to the sea, was destined for a serious earthquake and/or tsunami sooner or later.

If professors in the nuclear industry are "suprised" by such a predicable geographic event, we need better professors. Certainly, none of the geography professors were "suprised". If you ask them, they will tell you where the next big earthquake will strike, give or take a few hundred kilometers and a few decades.

The "suprised" professors are currently reviewing the geography supporting the other nuclear plants; why on earth didn't they think of doing that before? If this is standard of the academics behind nuclear engineering, we are not safe in their hands.

Next time Japan, build the useful but dangerous things on stable geography, and if there's none of that about, don't build them at all.

And a note to nuclear professors - if there are any more nuclear plants built in earthquake zones, or next to active volcanos, or in the path of avalanches, or on flood plains of oft flooding rivers, etc, shut them down please.
18:47 March 20, 2011 by tr2001
nuclear plants, coal plants vs.. all seducing world's resource polluting and shake the ecosystem balance. developed countries should starting focusing on solar power soon. research and manufacturing costs maybe high but its infinite, free and not polluting. consider covering all buildings with photovoltaic cells, then every house would produce its own electricity. even not an external power needed. Once you make it you would benefit from them for decades! Developed countries should be leading!
07:31 March 22, 2011 by rufus.t.firefly
One reason for talking so much about the nuclear accident and less, perhaps, about the tsunami, is that nothing can be done about a tsunami, whereas nuclear power plants result from our decisions. It is becoming increasingly evident that nuclear power is not economical, safe, or necessary. That is why nuclear power plants cannot get private insurance and must be underwritten by governments, even though the profit is private.
08:37 March 22, 2011 by pjtaipale
>nothing can be done about a tsunami, ...

Absolutely untrue. A lot can be done about a tsunami. And in fact, a lot *was* done in Japan. Warning systems, evacuation plans, protective structures. That's why the number of dead will be around 20,000 and not 200,000 or more. When Indonesia and Thailand were hit by a tsunami a few years back, a lot more people were killed because they had not prepared as well.

Likewise with nuclear power. The plants can be improved. In fact, besides Fukushima, several other nuclear plants on the same coast were hit by this huge tsunami - and there is no crisis. We should learn about that.

I think the statement by Mr. Reisch where he says Swedes will be more effective sounds actually scary and overconfident. You don't make nuclear plants safer by pretending that you are more effective and better than the Japanese. That's a recipe for disaster. The way to prepare is that you plan ahead for all kinds of risks and

If you are asking why there are problems in Swedish reactors, I think the biggest reason is the rather foolish referendum 30 years ago where there was a decision to shut down the plants in Sweden. Which was unrealistic, couldn't be done, and wasn't done - instead, the utilization of the plants has increased, without much investment. Why? If you are going to shut down the plants, the owner cannot invest in further development and renewals. And these are the things that would introduce new safety features, better reactor designs, safer plants. So Sweden voted to increase nuclear power but not develop it to be safer.

Otherwise, I'm quite shocked by the way media in the Nordics are exploiting the Japanese disaster politically to oppose nuclear power. There is a huge humanitarian disaster there. Even though the Japanese did prepare well, there was still huge damage and a lot of loss of life due to tsunami. The crisis in Fukushima plant is a very minor issue compared to the direct impact of the tsunami itself, even despite the extensive preparations and evacuations. The life has been changed for millions. But all that has gone from headlines, because fearmongering about nuclear plants sells better.

BTW this might interest you:

http://online.kitp.ucsb.edu/online/plecture/bmonreal11/ (from March 16)
10:56 March 22, 2011 by rufus.t.firefly

Either because I was unclear, or because you took my statement that there is nothing we can do about tsunamis out of context, you misunderstood me. What I meant is that we do not create tsunamis by our decisions and behavior, as we do nuclear power plants. Indeed, we can prepare for them. Apparently, the Japanese were prepared, as you pointed out. Still, the magnitude (9.0) of the quake took them by surprise, severely crippling several reactors and creating on ongoing crisis still not over.

So, I happen to disagree with you about what our decisions and behavior should be regarding nuclear power plants. As I said, they are not safe, economical, or necessary. For details on this, read a recent piece by Amory Lovins, a physicist with the Rocky Mountain Institute. You can Google it if interested.

I share your view about the hubris of Swedish authorities, who as the first to know about Chernobyl, did nothing to protect the Swedish population. They have a record in nuclear disasters and tsunamis which should counsel them to be more circumspect. They're attitude frightens me.
03:23 March 23, 2011 by jackx123
if i could predict any natural catastrophe I'd be rolling in money all the way to the bank.
08:46 March 23, 2011 by glamshek
Keep thinking you were the ones who would support US over Nuclear rows with certain Countries. Taste it
13:00 March 24, 2011 by karex
rufus and some others.

I have to agree with your points. I question the wisdom of building nuclear power plants on an unstable geography when it was never a matter of "if" but "when" it would happen. At the time though I could understand their decision since alternatives were very few. Nowadays however, there are other technologies that we can use, just as clean but not dangerous.

What makes the mere existence of these plants even more scary is that when there is a problem, no matter how good the technicians are, most governments make it a point to create a cover-up. If it gets out of hand, it will most probably be too late to evacuate because they don't want anyone to know they screwed up.

I truly feel that this is no decision any country has a right to make on their own just because the plant will be built in their territory. The fallout travels all over the planet and kills people everywhere. Just ask the families of those unfortunate Swedish cancer victims after the Chernobyl accident how they feel.
07:13 March 26, 2011 by Kevgio
@ 08:25 March 18, 2011 by Rey Stockholm

you are too right. all these people trying to scare the general population about nulcear reactors not being safe and the fact that they are some sort of atomic bomb waiting to happen is ludicrous and people really need to get informed before making childish uneducated opinions. in a per metre square basis of energy produced NOTHING can come close to nuclear, nothing. you would have to cover the entire country side with solar panels and/or wind turbines to get even close to going without nuclear and that just aint gonna happen. on the topic of wind turbines, who'd want those in their backyard? not me thats for sure and there are associated problems with people living near those also. the earthquake disaster in japan has been a tragedy but u have to remember that this was a 9.0 magnitude quake which is massive in terms of scale. the fact that the reactor is still standing is a feat in itself.
00:44 March 28, 2011 by Bender B Rodriquez
@ Rolle: I don't think he meant that the Swedes would act much differently than the Japanese. I think he meant that it would likely not happen to the same extent that happened in Japan, i.e. several reactors badly damaged at the same time.
22:31 March 28, 2011 by Nemesis
Sweden, the same as every other European country and major power needs to invest in ITER now.
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