No one has ever died because of Swedish nuclear power. Until recently, nuclear power provided about 40% of that country’s electricity, similar to hydro. Fossil fuels only generated about 1% of Sweden’s electricity.

But that’s about to change for the worse.

As Sama Bilbao y Léon and John Lindberg at World Nuclear Association write, “[Starting in 1980] Sweden had proved to the world that it was possible to free itself from fossil fuels for electricity production in less than a decade. One of the world’s cheapest and cleanest electricity systems was delivered, at the same time as Swedish life improved without sacrificing the environment.”

For almost ten years, Sweden has been a net exporter of low-carbon electricity to other parts of Europe. Sweden is farther along in its commercial nuclear waste disposal program than most countries and is building two deep geologic nuclear waste repositories at Forsmark.

So, with their nuclear reactors only about half-way through their life-spans, and the whole program running really well, who in Sweden would want to completely shut them down?

Um…members of the Swedish coalition-government, led by Sweden’s Green Party, people who get a Pavlovian gag reflex just thinking of nuclear. They want to prematurely close their entire nuclear fleet, and replace the 2 trillion kWhs with renewables and natural gas.

Their almost complete lack of the technical, environmental and operational knowledge of each of these energy sources might be understandable if it weren’t Sweden. This country has an extremely good grasp of all these issues, so it must be willful ignorance, for which we should be less forgiving.

And I guess, like Germany, they don’t mind the idea of being dependent on Russia. Worse still, replacing nuclear with renewables and natural gas would kill tens of thousands more people over the next few decades and would triple their carbon emissions. Nuclear has avoided over 2 billion tons of CO2 emissions from Sweden since 1980, similar to hydro.

An early phase-out of nuclear would add over 2 billion tons of CO2 emissions, cause the loss of $120 billion in taxes and undermine their grid reliability in an area of the world that gets really cold.

Think Texas of last week.

The world’s leading climate scientists, James Hansen and most of his colleagues, have warned vehemently that expanding nuclear power is necessary to have any chance of mitigating the worst effects of climate change.

After the retirement of the Ringhals 1 reactor, a normal Swedish winter has unraveled the country’s grid. The southern part Sweden, which previously had an additional six reactors, has been forced to import electricity from coal-fired power plants in Poland and Denmark, and gas-fired power plants in Germany that burn natural gas pipelined in from Russia. 

Huh? So much for the Green Party.

What’s bizarre about this major step backward is that the people of Sweden overwhelmingly like nuclear power. 78% of Swedes strongly support nuclear energy, 43% are open to the construction of new nuclear power plants, and 35% would like to continue using the country’s reactors for their full operating lives, a survey by Novus shows. On the other hand, only 11% of those polled are opposed to nuclear power, the lowest in history.

Sweden has a tax specifically discriminating against nuclear power – 0.75¢/kWh just for being nuclear. This is about a third of the total operating cost of nuclear power.  The European Commission has been reviewing whether this nuclear tax violates European Union competition laws.

In contrast, wind and biomass are highly subsidized (KPMG). Sweden also has a very high tax on CO2 emissions, about $120/tonCO2. These policies serve to support renewables and hurt fossil fuels, but they also hurt nuclear.

Unfortunately, Sweden’s electricity consumption has been rising. Sweden has one of the world’s highest individual levels of consumption – over 13,000 kWh/person/year. But since the country replaced fossil fuel with nuclear in the late 1960s, emissions levels in Sweden dropped to half of what they were in the 1970s (World Bank).

The installation of a large fraction of intermittent sources like wind and solar requires a correspondingly expanded backup capacity. According to the Swedish grid operator Svenska Kraftnät, the Swedish Energy Agency Energimyndigheten and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, there is no room for expansion of the current capacity of Swedish hydropower, and if the current hydropower system is used to back-up, or load-follow, wind power variability, it would have devastating effects on the local environment.

Furthermore, Svenska Kraftnät estimates the need for about 12,000 MW of back-up power from natural gas to load-follow installation of an additional 30,000 MW of wind power to replace the 9,000 MW nuclear fleet, using a generous capacity factor for wind of 30%. They also warn that the country’s infrastructure will not allow that much wind and gas to be installed anytime soon.

However, the Swedish grid operator can only guarantee power from wind sources at a capacity factor of 6%, which requires an even larger amount of installed wind capacity, almost 150,000 MW, with the same back-up from gas, to guarantee the 9,000 MW that would be lost from nuclear. Like most countries, Sweden’s nuclear fleet has a capacity factor of 90%, (Swedish National Grid, 2014).

The cost to install 30,000 MW of wind power with 12,000 MW of gas is about $45 billion dollars plus another $4 billion to operate them over 20 years. Continuing the nuclear fleet over the next 20 years will cost about $3 billion. I understand Sweden has a budget surplus, but an extra $40 billion may be a bit much just to indulge the government’s anti-nuclear sentiment.

The situation is even worse given Sweden’s weather. The peak power demand for winter in Sweden is 28,200 MW, easily provided by its existing energy mix, especially since nuclear works even better in extreme cold (Swedish National Grid, 2014). Since all of Europe peaks at the same time, Sweden’s ability to import power during extreme weather is essentially zero.

According to the Swedish grid operator, there is no coherent plan for how to replace the loss of 9,000 MW of reliable nuclear power with intermittent sources plus gas in a way that can assure power during very cold weather. And Sweden gets really cold!

Last week, Texans were shocked that their leaders hadn’t really been taking care of their grid. I hope the Swedes don’t get the same shock in the future.



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