Europe and nuclear: episode 5 – Sweden
European Climate-Energy policies and nuclear: a disunited Union
End the year with a symbol – the 1-year anniversary of Fessenheim arbitrary closure in France and start it with a leap – witnessing Sweden’s struggle with its own energy mix.
Sweden is THE European country with the most virtuous and well-balanced electricity system – and to top it all, the Swedes are pragmatic, pro-science, with a keen environmental conscience.
On the second thought… Wasn’t it, only, up until 2014 that Sweden’s electricity mix reflected the values of its population? Before a political coalition shut down 4 nuclear reactors in the space of 6 years.
The story you are about to read incorporates all the ingredients, twists and turns, contradictions, and dramas that many European countries are facing, struggling with an electricity transition that does not even tend towards more decarbonization. They are, unfortunately, abetted in this by the European Commission itself (European taxonomy, RED2 directive, Greendeal, etc.), be it individually or collectively. All this while the climate crisis keeps on being urgent, as the continent’s sovereignty keeps on being no longer sovereign at all, as the deaths associated with climate change and air pollution keep piling up.
Everything is there. Your end-of-summer novel. You read it AND you experience it. When it comes to energy transition, absurdity is no exception, it is the new normal: industrial policy decisions resulting from political negotiations, a restrictive regulatory and fiscal environment that operators pay through a hefty price and nuclear industry through its poor image, degradation of the power grid and electricity supply quality, price hikes, reversal and then about-face of public opinion vis-à-vis nuclear power and renewables, growing decorrelation between needs and the decisions taken to meet them, dishonest interpretation of facts, paradoxes, contradictions, disappointments, betrayals. You’ve got it all.
No nuclear is the new dark.
Sweden: on a narrow path towards a low-carbon future
by Daniel Westlén
Daniel Westlén holds a PhD in reactor physics. He works at the parliament offices of the Liberal party in Sweden. He is also a member of the board of the Swedish Ecomodernist society.
He has a background from Vattenfall, including the Forsmark nuclear power plant and the waste management company, SKB.
Sweden is to large extent covered by forest (68.7 percent3). The country is also rich in minerals. The natural resources in combination with the hydropower led to the establishment of energy intensive industries, such as pulp and paper, chemistry, mining, and steel.
The oil crisis and the expansion of nuclear power were followed by an electrification of a wide range of industrial processes. This is a main reason why Sweden has one of the highest per capita usages of electricity in the world (16 500 kWh/capita in 20203).
Sweden has a population of 10.4 million2. The population density is 25 people per km2, with most people living in the south and along the northern coast. Urbanization is high, 87 percent [Our world in data] of the population live in urban areas.
Sweden is a member of the EU since January 1st, 1995.
See the map here.
Sweden has one of the cleanest electricity grids of any industrial country. Apart from some back-up power and plastics in waste incinerators, fossil fuels are not used for electricity production. Since the mid-1980s, nuclear power has provided the baseload, and hydro power the flexibility. On top of that electricity is produced in combination with heat production in both district heating plants and the forest industry. In recent years there has been a rapid expansion of wind power which continues.
The Greens promised to make nuclear power more expensive by changing regulation, raising the nuclear waste fee, and by raising the tax
Nuclear power in Sweden has declined following the closure of four reactors since 2015. The closures came as a direct consequence of a 17 percent raise of the tax on installed thermal capacity in the reactors which coincided with low power prices. The Greens entered government for the first time in 2014. Before the elections they promised to make nuclear power more expensive by changing regulation, raising the nuclear waste fee, and by raising the tax. When the tax was raised, the promises by the Greens were not part of the official explanation. Instead, it was said that since the tax had remained on the same level for some years, raising it was justified.
The remaining six reactors were also threatened but the removal of the nuclear tax by the end of 2017 drastically improved the profitability of continued operation. Currently there is no immediate economic, nor political, threat to the six reactors in operation.
Current political landscape
Nuclear energy has been central for the political debate in Sweden since our referendum in 1980. The referendum was initiated by the social democratic party, which in itself contained polarised views on nuclear energy. The referendum was triggered by the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in the US. Voters were presented with three options, all of them implying phasing out the nuclear power plants. The outcome was not clear, but led to parliament making the decision to phase out the last reactor by 2010, 25 years after the commissioning of the last two units.
Anyone can apply to build a new reactor. The catch is that no more than 10 reactors may be in commercial operation, and that they must be built on the three operating sites
The 2010 phase-out goal is since long gone. The Swedish operational licenses are unlimited. The current investment plans though aim at 60 years of operation. This has been interpreted by many in politics as an end date for nuclear in 2045. It seems the discussion from the days of the referendum on how long the plants would be operated is still active. Interestingly enough, we do not have a similar discussion concerning any other infrastructure.
Akkats hydro-power plant (source: Vattenfall)
One of the goals of the Swedish energy system, set by the parliament, is that electricity production should be “100 percent renewable by 2040, this however does not mean that nuclear power should be closed by means of political decisions”. This sentence is – to say the least – debated. The political opposition, comprisiing the conservative and the Liberals, argues that the word “renewable” should be changed to “fossil-free”. The government and its supporting parties, on the other hand, argue that despite the fact that new nuclear is allowed in Sweden, no one is currently planning to build a reactor.
It is true that anyone can apply for permission to build and operate a new reactor. The catch, though, is that no more than 10 reactors may be in commercial operation at any given time, and also that reactors may be built only at the three sites where we have reactors in operation today. In practice this limits the candidates to the two companies in possession of the sites. The Ringhals and Forsmark sites are controlled by Vattenfall, fully owned by the government. Oskarshamn is controlled by Uniper, in which Fortum has the majority of shares.
The climate transition
Sweden has a high use of electricity, measured both in absolute terms and as share of the total energy consumption. Industry underwent a massive electrification in parallel with the buildout of nuclear during the 1970s and 1980s. Also, the use of biofuels in industry has increased significantly since the 1970s, mostly replacing oil. Biomass is also extensively used in district heating, where fossil fuels are now almost completely phased out. Electricity is also widely used for heating in the form of heat pumps, which are very common in Swedish homes.
The national goal is net zero emissions in 2045. The common denominator of the plans is that they rely heavily on a massive supply of fossil-free electricity
Still, the use of fossil fuels in the economy is extensive. The main fossil fuel is oil, mostly used in transportation. The Swedish steel industry uses large amounts of coal to reduce iron oxide to iron. Natural gas is used especially on the west coast, where there is a gas grid and, in liquid form, for passenger ferries e.g. on the Baltic.
The national goal is net zero emissions of greenhouse gases in 2045 and growing negative emissions beyond that. The detailed plans to achieve this are taking form. A wide range of industries have presented how they will change to get rid of fossil fuels. The common denominator is that the plans rely heavily on a massive supply of fossil-free electricity.
Forsmark nuclear power plant (source: Vattenfall)
Swedish electricity consumption has been stable around 140-150 TWh per year since the commissioning of the reactors. Exports have been growing with the expansion of wind and are now typically in the 20-30 TWh per year range, depending on the hydrological situation.
There is now a general consensus that consumption will increase. In 2019 and 2020 a common assumption was that electricity consumption would increase to around 200 TWh to meet needs arising from the electrification of industry and transport. This changed in November 2020, when the mining company LKAB announced its intention to expand its value chain by reducing iron ore into iron. This would be done fossil-free by means of hydrogen reduction. The increased need for electricity for reducing the entire LKAB iron production would be 50 TWh per year, corresponding to today’s total use in the entire Swedish industry, or to the whole nuclear production. This message led to a shift in the discussion, and in 2021, think tanks, the association of engineers, the energy companies’ trade association, the business organisations, and even the government have been talking about a doubling or even a tripling of the consumption in the coming 20-25 years.
The political situation for nuclear is stable, with positive changes in sight. The implications of the climate transition – the enormous demand for fossil-free electricity – is slowly sinking in. Even though plans for wind have been adjusted to over 100 TWh per year, that won’t suffice. There is also a growing opposition to wind power development in many parts of the country which will probably slow the pace of the buildout.
There is a lack of dispatchable capacity, reactive power, and ability to manage a large black-out
In parallel, the grid in the southern part of Sweden, where most people live, has degraded dramatically following the closures of the reactors. Industries are denied more power when they ask for it, and trade is frequently hindered, resulting in price spikes. There is a lack of dispatchable capacity, but also of reactive power, and in ability to manage a large blackout.
Support for the existing political goals for the energy system is weak. Today 174 out of 349 members of parliament, one mandate short of a majority, represent parties that want nuclear power to be an important part of the future clean energy mix, which would mean including nuclear in the political goal. The official Swedish position on the EU level is that “all means of fossil-free energy, including nuclear and renewables, should be efficiently used in the European climate transition”. This was established by the EU committee in parliament where the parties that see nuclear as part of the solution are in majority.
Currently all new EU regulation repeatedly cites “renewable” energy as the only means to meet its sustainability goals – as exemplified by newest directives regarding the transportation sector, which specifically requires the use of renewables. The main threat to Swedish nuclear power today is that the European regulator consistently raises requirements for the share of “renewable” energy – not low-carbon energy – in the different sectors. Member states using nuclear to achieve sustainability do not get credit for this, and building new nuclear may eventually become impossible, as the States are required to install more and more PV and wind turbines alongside, regardless of the financial viability of the ensemble, or other criteria like mix optimization, security of supply or global environmental impacts.
Public support for building new reactors has been increasing, but over the years an institutional resistance to nuclear power has built up
The Swedish population in general has a positive attitude towards nuclear power, with 77 percent in favour of continued operation of the existing plants, of whom 46 percent are in favour of new build4. Support for building new reactors has been increasing. Small modular reactors have gotten quite some attention recently and it is likely that this, in combination with the need for bold climate action, has strengthened support.
However, over the years an institutional resistance to nuclear power has built up. Laws and regulations are rigged against it. Prognoses, and thereby planning, assume a phase-out by 2040. The regulator is not fit to manage an application to build. Only a few universities have research and education in nuclear energy related fields.
It is likely that Sweden will build new reactors. We need them both for security of supply and to expand the electricity production. There is a risk though that the institutional resistance will delay them. It also raises the risk for anyone who is considering investing in nuclear in Sweden. This we have to deal with without further delay.