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FACT CHECK: Did Sweden's government really shut down two nuclear power plants?

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
FACT CHECK: Did Sweden's government really shut down two nuclear power plants?
The Ringhals 1 reactor before being shut down in 2020. Photo: Jonas Lindstedt/TT

One of the surprise issues in Sweden's election has been the closure of Ringhals 1 and 2 in 2019 and 2020. The Moderate opposition claims the Social Democrat government took this decision, and is therefore to blame for high power prices. How true is this?


Who took the decision to shut down Ringhals 1 and 2?

The board of Sweden's state-owned power company Vattenfall decided to close Ringhals 1 and 2 in April 2015, setting 2019 and 2020 as the dates for the shutdown. The two nuclear power stations had a planned 50-year life, meaning they had always been scheduled to close in 2025 and 2026. 

But the government asked them to do that, right? 

No. The board took the decision independently, and Lars G Nordström, the state-owned power company's then chairman, told the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper last week that the decision was "a purely commercial" one. 

"We took the decision on the recommendation of the company leaders. There was no pressure from the political side. It was a purely commercial decision," he said. "We focused our investments on the five reactors which had the longest technical working lives, and the ones which required the least investment to upgrade." 

"It was absolutely not a political decision in the way that has been claimed." 


He said that one of the two Ringhals reactors had been in a "really bad" state, with rust damage to the bottom plate, among other problems, and that it was designed to work in a coordinated way with the other reactor, making it difficult to shut them down or keep them open independently. 

Power prices were also at rock bottom in 2014 and 2015, putting the profitability of Vattenfall's nuclear plants in question. 


Didn't the government at least change tax and safety laws so that the reactors were no longer profitable? 

Well, perhaps. 

In the budget proposition for 2015, published on October 19th 2014 (so six months before the decision), the government proposed increasing the effektskatt, a tax on nuclear power production, by 17 percent. That tax rise then came into force in August 2015. 

This did reduce the profitability of nuclear power, but not by much. 

The Moderate Party had itself brought in a much bigger 24 percent increase in the tax back in 2008, which makes it difficult for the party to lay the blame solely at the Social Democrats' door. 

It wasn't just the tax. The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority also on December 2014 ruled that each nuclear power plant in Sweden would need to put in place an Independent Core Cooling System, a safety feature supposed to prevent accidents like the one at Japan's Fukushima plant, by 2021.

This, however, was a demand coming from the European Union, and the only influence Sweden's new government had over the requirement was in how quickly they chose to implement it, and what exceptions were put in place.


Wasn't the Green Party committed to shutting down nuclear plants? 

It's true that the Green Party campaigned in the 2014 election to shut down at least one of Sweden's four oldest reactors, Oskarshamn 1 and 2 and Ringhals 1 and 2, during the coming parliamentary term. 

But when they struck an agreement with the Social Democrats in 2014 to form a coalition, this demand was left out of the coalition deal, although the two parties did agree that new nuclear power should not have a place in Sweden's long-term energy plans, 

"The government's starting that nuclear power should be replaced by renewable energy and energy efficiency and that Sweden in the long-term should have 100 percent renewable energy," they agreed. 

In addition, while no decisions would be taken to close existing nuclear power plants, the parties agreed to tighten the regulation of nuclear power. 

"Nuclear power should bear a greater share of its social and economic cost," they said. "The safety demands should be tightened and the payments for nuclear waste increased." 

Åsa Romson, the then-leader of the Green Party, told SVT at the time that these extra demands would force some nuclear reactors to close. 

"We have said the whole time that we want to ensure that nuclear reactors are closed during this parliamentary term," she said. "This will occur once we let the nuclear power companies carry the full social and economic costs, and meet the safety demands. This means that reactors will close." 


So did the tax rise force Vattenfall to close the plants, then? 

Probably not. 

At the time of the decision to close the plants, Torbjörn Wahlborg, the head of Vattenfall's power generation business, said that the rise in tax was much less of a factor in the decision than the record low power prices at the time. 

"One öre more or less makes no big difference," he told the technical newspaper Ny Teknik of the tax hike. "But if the effektskatten hadn't existed at all, then we wouldn't have taken this decision to close." 

It was, he said, "a purely commercial decision". 

If the tax was the main reason for the decision, then you would think that a later decision in 2016 to phase it out completely from 2018 might have pushed Vattenfall to change its decision.

But it didn't. If the tax had been decisive, it presumably would have. 


What did the right-wing opposition parties say at the time the decision was taken to close the plant? 

Jan Björklund, leader of the Liberal Party (then called Folkpartiet), was the most outspoken opponent, calling it "an unfortunate decision" at the time, and blamed the government's decision to increase the nuclear tax. 

Otherwise, the reaction was muted. Indeed, the Moderate Party and the Christian Democrats were both happy a year later, in 2016, to sign up to a goal of having zero nuclear power by 2040 in the energy agreement they reached with the Social Democrats, the Green Party, and the Centre Party. 

"The goal for the year 2040 is 100 percent renewable electricity production [IE, no nuclear]" the parties agreed.

They did stress, though, that this goal did not amount to a political decision to phase out nuclear. 

"That is a goal, not a stop date which will forbid nuclear power or mean shutting down nuclear power through a political decision," they wrote.  

Similarly, the Moderate Party's 2018 manifesto, taken after the decision to close Ringhals 1 and 2, makes no mention of them at all, saying only that "nuclear power should continue to be an important part of Sweden's energy mix". 


So when did the Moderates make Ringhals' closure a big political issue? 

Not until 2019, when the first of the plants was just about to be decommissioned. The Moderates had by then decided to make nuclear energy their first subject for cooperation with the Sweden Democrats, presumably because it is a more neutral policy area than immigration. 

The Moderates and the Christian Democrats then announced that they were leaving the 2016 energy agreement. Then, together with the Sweden Democrats, they put a proposal to the Swedish parliament's business committee that the closure of Ringhals 1 and 2 should be stopped. 

This was then voted down. 

It was purely a symbolic gesture. By then, as Ringhals' chief executive Björn Linde told DN at the time, it was too late to reverse the closure plan. 

"This debate should have been carried out in 2015. It's time to wake up now," he said. "This isn't an industry where you can decide to do one thing one day and something else the next." 

So, in conclusion, did Sweden's government shut down any nuclear plants? 

It depends on what you mean. 

If you mean, "did the government take a direct decision to shut down Ringhals 1 and 2?", the answer is a definite "no". 

If you mean, "did the government take decisions that indirectly meant that Vattenfall had no choice but to shut Ringhals 1 and 2 down?', the answer is probably still a 'no'. 

It is only if you mean, 'did the government take decisions which worsened the economics of Ringhals 1 and 2, which, along with record low power prices and the advanced age and poor condition of the reactors, played a lesser but still significant role in the decision to shut the reactors down?", that the answer, perhaps, is a very weak 'yes'. 


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Please log in to leave a comment. 2022/09/08 14:30
The basic problem is that Reinfeldt’s second term followed by Löfven’s governments were at the mercy of Miljöpartiet to stay in power. The rest is a blame-game of who said this and who did that. Miljöpartiet’s main ambition was and still is to close down all nuclear power in Sweden no matter the cost. The article indeed quotes Åsa Romson: “We have said the whole time that we want to ensure that nuclear reactors are closed during this parliamentary term.” I don’t know when she made that statement, but she stepped down in 2016 so it was at least six years ago, but the ambition was and still is written in stone within Miljöpartiet. The sad story is that successive governments gave way to Miljöpartiet's demands without having any realistic plan to sustainably replace the nuclear shortfall – thus the situation that Sweden finds itself in today. It is one of the most important responsibilities of any government to ensure that electricity be reliably and sustainably maintained across the country. That state-owned Vattenfall should look at its profits instead of maintaining a reliable supply of electricity is laughable, particularly when at the same time the social democrats repeatedly do everything they can to forbid profits within education and healthcare. It’s a pity they don’t try to forbid Vattenfall from making a profit so that they could produce electricity in sufficient quantities at affordable prices.

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