The Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, voted on June 17 to overturn a three-decades old ban on new nuclear reactors in what many see as a test-case for the long-predicted “nuclear renaissance ” in Europe.
The legislation annuls a a referendum in 1980 in which Sweden’s population voted against renewing or replacing the country’s fleet of 12 power plants. In the last few years Sweden has gradually placed concern over climate change and fossil-fuel dependence over fear of atomic power. That has been a cause of excitement for nuclear supporters: if environmentally conscious and right-thinking Scandinavians could embrace the atom—thanks to the fact that, once built, nuclear reactors do not emit greenhouse gasses—then surely the rest of Europe would follow. Britain, Poland and Italy have joined atom-loving France in proposing new reactors. Even Germany, where fear of Atomkraft has been at the center of the country’s green movement since Chernobyl, is considering extending a long-planned “phase-out” of its nuclear sector.
But yesterday’s vote is no simple victory for nuclear supporters. Fission—which works by releasing the “binding energy” that holds atoms together—remains both literally and fundamentally divisive, even in Sweden. The Riksdag voted in favor of renewing nuclear power—which currently provides around 50% of the country’s electricity through 10 remaining plants—by the near-divided vote of 174-172. The left-leaning opposition party has vowed to reverse the legislation if it gains power in September’s general election.
Even if the overturn of the ban stands, political will alone does not new nuclear power plants make–as neighboring Finland can attest. In 2002, the Finns decided to build new reactors as part of their effort to honor their Kyoto obligations. French nuclear giant Areva unveiled designs for a grand new reactor on the island of Olkiluoto. Since then, things have not gone smoothly. The reactor, originally scheduled to open last year, now won’t be operational until 2013 at the earliest. The project is over-budget—by billions of euros—and Areva and it’s client TVO have been slinging accusations back and forth as to which party is responsible for the overrun.
What’s more, the Olkiluoto reactor was financed before the credit crunch. Energy companies may find it more difficult to raise the amount of debt finance needed to pay for the multi-billion dollar machines. And if rich, corruption-free Northern Europe finds it difficult to build new reactors to budget, how on earth are other regions looking at nuclear energy, such as the Middle East and North Africa, going to succeed? (Incidentally, I and many others concerned about nuclear proliferation fear that the explosion of interest in the Middle East in nuclear power portends a nuclear arms race, rather than a race to fight climate change, in the region).
So far, Finland, rather than Sweden, seems to be the emblem of Europe’s “nuclear renaissance.” Political will may be shifting in nuclear’s favor, but so far there are indications that the economics are not. There have been false-calls of nuclear renaissances before:In 1974, President Richard Nixon predicted that the U.S. would have 1,000 plants in operation by the end of the century. By the turn of the millennium, only 104 plants were operating in the U.S. When I visited Olkiluoto in 2008, Areva officials were bullish about their future in Europe–and elsewhere. They felt their time had come. Sweden’s parliament might agree, but ultimately it’s not up to them.