In 1980, Swedes voted in a referendum not to build any new nuclear power stations, but to allow existing stations or those under construction to operate until the end of their design life. This decision was eventually rescinded in 2010 to allow new reactors only at existing sites. Since then, support for nuclear has continued to be far from steady.
Now some members of the Swedish coalition government want to prematurely close their entire nuclear fleet, and replace the 2 trillion kWhs (40% of Swedish electricity) with renewables and gas, despite the fact that some of the reactors are only half-way through their lifespans.
As James Conca has written in Forbes, this would make no sense. Sweden’s electricity demand is growing as they attempt to remove fossil fuels from their energy mix by electrifying transport, but adequate supply is proving challenging. The Swedish Energy Agency (Energimyndigheten) and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences say there is no room for further expansion of hydropower. The Grid Operator estimates that Sweden would need an additional 30,000 MW of wind power to replace the 9,000 MW of lost nuclear power (using a generous capacity factor for wind of 30%), plus 12,000 MW of back-up power from natural gas.
The cost of installing this new infrastructure would be about $45 billion dollars followed by another $4 billion to operate them over 20 years. Nuclear reactors are expensive to build but then cheap to operate: continuing the Swedish nuclear fleet over the next 20 years would cost only $3 billion. This is despite the fact that Sweden has a tax discriminating against nuclear power – now about 0.67 Euro cents/kWh, which makes up about one-third of the operating cost of nuclear power (wind and biomass are subsidised by about three times that). The European Commission is currently reviewing whether the tax violates European Union competition law.
Wind power is an essential part of the low-carbon energy mix, and Sweden has great potential to further expand its wind farms despite rapid recent growth reaching a capacity of 5,425 MW in 2014. Gas is less bad than coal, but is still a fossil fuel, so much worse for the climate than nuclear energy. The problem is that gas and wind take time to install – it is more likely the only power that could be produced quickly enough is coal and oil: the dirtiest of fossil fuels and exactly what nuclear was installed to avoid.
As Conca argues, shutting down Sweden’s nuclear fleet would make no sense at all. Sweden has a great history with nuclear power, having run reactors since 1972, and is currently building advanced deep-geological nuclear waste repositories. Nuclear energy’s proponents must argue robustly against its political opponents. The proponents have common sense on their side.