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The Swedish ban on nuclear power lifted after 30 years

Last updated on March 1, 2013


By Michael Karnerfors, 2010-06-17

By a narrow margin, after over 10 hours of debate (minus breaks), the Swedish parliament just made the decision to lift the 30 year old ban on giving permits for new nuclear reactors. While this is very uplifting, and certainly a big thaw in this deadlocked issue, it’s not over quite yet. We have an election coming…


In the 1960’s, Sweden was dabbling in nuclear power, and also nuclear weapons. The Swedish government was keen on weapons from the moment they were revealed to the world, and a state governed program was started which would look closely at the possibility of getting dometically produced weapons by building a combined power and plutonium breeding reactor: R4, reactor #4.

The design was an incredibly complex one: a heavy water moderated, boiler reactor, capable of fuel changes during normal power operation. For several reasons, it was never completed:

  • public opinion against nuclear weapons was great
  • the US provided Sweden with enriched uranium cheap on the condition we didn’t use it for weapons, which knocked out the economic foundation for the combined power/weapons project
  • Sweden pushed for, and signed, the Non-Proliferation Treaty
  • the design was too complex and fraught with inherent safety weaknesses
  • private investors went for light water reactors instead.

In the end R4 was finished but never loaded with fuel. They put an oil burner to run the turbines and generators with instead.

Twelve lightwater power reactors were projected and constructed.

The referendum

By the end of the 1970’s nuclear power in turn became a touchy issue. One government fell on it after they made a change in stance from negative to positive. Calls for a referendum were raised, but for the better part this was resisted and struck down.

Then the Three Mile Island accident happened. Support for nuclear power went into freefall, and all of the parliament parties agreed on a referendum. It was held in 1980.

The referendum was a very strange affair because the options you had to vote for were, in brief:

  1. Stop using nuclear power, when suitable alternatives are available.
  2. Stop using nuclear power, when suitable alternatives are available. Yes, that is the same option as 1. It was just a bit more detailed.
  3. Stop using nuclear power in no later than 10 years.

The result was an even spread between the three options. Option 2 won by an extremely narrow margin. After that a parliament decision was made to ban permits for new nuclear power reactors; to ban the planning and/or design of new power reactors; to close all 12 power reactors no later than 2010, that is to say thirty 30 years. The point was very clear: in the year 2010, nuclear power will be dead in Sweden. Big bummer, but at least everyone knew the rules and the politicians breathed a sigh of relief in that the hot potato had been thrown away and needent be bothered with. For a while that is…

From “No!” to “Probably not”

In the 1990’s it was clear that the replacements for nuclear power in Sweden were not doing much progress. Sweden has always had a very strong production base of hydro power. But for environmental reasons there was/is also a ban on building new dams in the remaining untouched grand rivers of northern Sweden. Wind power wasn’t taking off at all. Solar is right out of the question at these latitudes. Energy savings were not happening to any great degree. And we still had a pretty large usage of oil for heating, especially with Sweden being deep frozen for several months each year.

It was strongly suggested that there would not be a replacement for the 50% of electricity production that nuclear provided.

Things took a turn for the worse when in 1997 the final date of 2010 was removed. But instead of giving a new end date this was replaced by a law that said nuclear power would be abandoned, but without fixed date. The government was also with “Dismantlement law” given the right to at drop the hatchet on any power reactor, at any time. This happened in 1999 and 2005 when the two reactors at the Barsebäck nuclear power plant were forced out of operation ahead of time.

Still however, the replacements failed to materialize.


At around 2005 it was dreadfully obvious that nuclear power would not be gone in Sweden by the year 2010. The deficit in production capability after Barsebäck’s 1 230 MW were removed from the grid was also getting noticable, especially during cold-spells in the winter.

However a problem had accumulated in that the remaing ten reactors were in dire need of service and upgrades. Originally scheduled to be run only until 2010, they had not been serviced and/or upgraded for operations after that. After all: what kind idiots on a nuclear company board would approve pouring billions of cash into the reactors when it had been clear it would be a total waste… at least for as long as there was a clear end date, and still pretty much so with the Damocles sword of the 1997 law hanging over each reactor ready to kill any investment poured into them.

But finally the order was given: about face! Not only would the reactors get a life-time extension – something they were not built for in the first place – but some of them would also get a power output upgrade. The nuclear industry now had to in less than 5-10 years do what they should have been doing the past 25-30 years.

Needless to say this didn’t go well at all and when work started in 2009, the time tables were horrendously underestimated. The work dragged out well into the winter. In January 2010 four out of ten reactors were offline when the worst cold-spell in over ten years kicked in and we were nearing brown-outs. We made it through though… but only “thanks” to heavy imports and starting up the reserve oilfired plants.  

The great surprise

In January of 2009 however, the current center-right coalition government announed they had reached an agreement. The previously ardently opposing Center Party had been swayed and agreed to lift the ban on building new reactors. This caused a huge stir and the left wing red-green opposition parties – with the Green Party in particular – opposed this idea. Never the less the proposal was worked out. The final draft was this:

  • The dismantlement law of 1997 would be removed
  • Permits for new reactors, of any capacity, would again be allowed to be given
  • Only replacements for old reactors will be allowed, once an old reactor is slated to be decommissioned
  • The liability for reactor owners would be raised to european standards, which means 1.2 billion EUR must be guaranteed to be available immediately, and there will no upper limit to the liability in long terms, meaning company assets may be confiscated to make up for any cost above the 1.2 billion
  • No government subsidies for building new reactors

The vote and the future

Today, June 17 2010, the parliament of Sweden finally accepted the proposal. It was by a very narrow margin with 174 votes against 172 and three not present (= 349 seats). The road getting there was a tough one and at one point it even looked as if up to four parliament members would go rogue and oppose the proposal, which would have felled it. In the end only two of those remained and so it was passed.

The debate that preceded the vote was a furious one and especially the Greens went on an all out attack. The spokesperson for energy policies for the Green Party – Mr. Per Bolund – didn’t hold back on the scare mongering while in the chair and promised new Chernobyls, terrorism, and all sorts of maladies if the proposal was accepted. He even went as far as to read a witness statement from a widow of one of the firefighters that died at Chernobyl. 

Needless to say I and the others from NPYP that were following the live debate were hopping mad at this kind of horrible propaganda. Refreshingly enough though they got some very nice bite-backs from the centre-right representatives. One of the best ones was this (quoted from memory so it is not perfectly quoted):

“If what you are saying is true Mr. Bolund, why are you and your red-green buddies not proposing an immediate shutdown of our reactors? If there is this immediate danger which you claim, why are you not saying you’ll shut them down immediately if you come into power, but instead gradually phasing them out? Do you even believe what you are saying, or is it just empty rethorics?”.

The propsal was accepted, but the story is not over just yet. In September this year there is the Swedish parliament election. This election assigns all seats in parliament (which is the sole legislative body) and also decides which party or parties will form the government for the upcoming 4 years. The red-green coalition has said that they will tear up the decision made today if they win this election.

We are looking at a new very exciting summer and early fall when it comes to the future of nuclear power in Sweden.

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