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ENERGY

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

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?

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

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 point…is 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’. 

Member comments

  1. 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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SWEDEN AND UKRAINE

Who is behind the Nord Stream Baltic pipeline attack?

The Russians, the Ukrainians, the Americans, or someone else entirely. Who blew up the Nord Stream gas pipeline?

Who is behind the Nord Stream Baltic pipeline attack?

Ukraine quickly declared the explosions that caused the leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines to be an operation by Russia, aimed at worsening the EU economy and adding to panic over winter gas prices, while Radosław Sikorski, a former Polish defence and foreign minister, thanks the US for what he described as “a special maintenance operation”. 

The governments of Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, the most closely affected countries, while all stating that they believe the explosions were the result of a deliberate attack, have so far been careful not to point fingers at anyone. 

So what are the theories raging over who might be behind the attack? 

The Russian hybrid warfare theory

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said on Twitter that the damage to Nord Stream 1 and 2 was “a terrorist attack planned by Russia and an act of aggression against the EU”. 

Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, also pointed the finger at Russia. 

“It was probably an act of sabotage, so it is most likely a signal from Russia, because we are waiting for these circumstances to be confirmed, and it is something very disturbing,” he said. “This is something that shows what means and mechanisms the Russians can resort to in order to destabilise Europe even more.” 

This line was echoed by Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at the Bruegel think-tank, who wrote on Twitter that the sabotage showed Russia escalating its use of the energy weapon to hybrid war.   

Brigadier General Carsten Rasmussen, who was Denmark’s Defence Attaché in Moscow until June, laid out the argument for why Russia might want to blow up the own pipeline in a series of Tweets in Danish. 

He said that the sabotage “creates fear” about whether Europe can get gas this winter, and also over the vulnerability of other infrastructure in Europe. He said the sabotage would lead markets to react, pushing up gas prices by 12 percent. He said the attack would “threaten Western unity”, pointing to  Sikorski’s tweet. Finally, he said the attack was a distraction from Russia’s referendums annexing new areas conquered in its invasion. 

“Who might be interested in provoking the four effects mentioned?” he asks, pointing the finger at Russia. “Nothing has yet been proven – and perhaps never will be. The sabotage actions in the Baltic Sea look like a hybrid action, not aimed at Denmark, but at the West’s unity and willingness to support Ukraine.” 

The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov dismissed such attempts to blame Russia as “quite predictable and also predictably stupid”. 

“This is a big problem for us, ” he protested in a call with journalists. “Because firstly, both lines of Nord Stream 2 are filled with gas – the entire system is ready to pump gas and the gas is very expensive… Now the gas is flying off into the air.”

US strategic attack or revenge for Ukraine invasion

Radosław Sikorski, a former Polish defence and foreign minister, posted a now highly criticised tweet thanking the US for the action. 

In follow-on tweets, Sikorski explained that Nord Stream’s main purpose for Russia had been to allow it to blackmail Eastern Europe with threats to cut off the gas, without also having to cut off gas to customers in Western Europe. 

“Nordstream’s only logic was for Putin to be able to blackmail or wage war on Eastern Europe with impunity,” he wrote. “All Ukrainian and Baltic sea states have opposed Nordstream’s construction for 20 years. Now $20 billion of scrap metal lies at the bottom of the sea, another cost to Russia of its criminal decision to invade Ukraine. Someone, @MFA_Russia, did a special maintenance operation.” 

Backing this argument is a clip taken from a press conference US President Joe Biden held with German Chancellor Olaf Schwartz in February, days before Russia invaded Ukraine.  

“If Russia invades… then there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2,” Biden said. “We will bring an end to it.”

This has been tweeted thousands of times today in what some have dismissed as a Russian propaganda operation. Rather than threatening to sabotage the pipeline, Biden is more likely to have been referring to the possibility that Germany could simply block the pipeline and refuse to use it. 

Germany in the end went ahead with that decision and block the newly completed Nord Stream 2, taken the decision only days before Russia sent troops to Ukraine. 

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