TCS Daily

Nice Nukes

By Herbert Inhaber - June 6, 2003 12:00 AM

Twenty-three years after Sweden voted in a referendum to phase out nuclear power as soon as possible, it's still needed. Vast amounts of money will be poured into nuclear reactors to upgrade them.

In 1980, the year after Three Mile Island, Sweden held what was the most important referendum on nuclear power. As with many referenda, the voters were not offered a clear choice. Great debates roiled the nation, as pro- and anti-nukes almost came to blows in the streets. Those who wanted to keep nuclear power, which produced about half of the nation's electricity, were not allowed to vote, "Retain and expand it". The best they could do is to vote to phase it out over about two decades.

The idea was that renewables would gradually replace nuclear, and the world would be a better place as a result.

Now, Sweden already had lots of renewables. The major power company is called Vattenfall. If the name seems to ring a bell, it's because the word stands for waterfall, the other major source of Sweden's electricity. Vattenfall, which operates nuclear reactors as well as hydro dams, is proposing to spend about $2 billion to upgrade existing nuclear reactors instead of shutting them down, the dream of anti-nukes almost a generation ago. According to a news report, "A Vattenfall executive told SVT [Swedish television] the company expected nuclear power to remain an energy source in Sweden for some 30 years to come."

In the US, many owners of reactors have realized that locking the doors after 40 years - the supposed lifetime decreed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - doesn't make economic sense. They have applied for, and received, life extensions. Some nuclear experts have suggested that as long as the core vessel, which contains the nuclear fuel rods, is not embrittled by radiation, a reactor could last more or less indefinitely with reasonable refurbishing from time to time. The idea seems to be taking hold in Sweden.

What has happened to the dreams of a nuclear-free Sweden, where windmills and solar panels would dot the landscape? Alas, those dreams have faded.

Sweden poured more money, per capita, into renewables than just about any other nation. However, as in other countries, there is a vast difference between a demonstration project, where smiling politicians cut ribbons, and powering an entire country. The Swedes found out that their country didn't have too much sunlight, otherwise why would half the country congregate on the Costa Brava every winter.

There is some wind in Sweden, but again it changes from minute to minute. Swedes want their lights to stay on until they flick the switch, not when Mother Nature decides all should be dark. As I mentioned in a previous column, most renewables have a "strike value" of zero, that is, you cannot predict with certainty what the output will be in the next hour. This makes them much less valuable than a reactor, whose output in the next hour is almost certain.

What are the implications of this Swedish decision for the rest of Europe? It seems likely that there could be a nuclear revival, after years of stagnation. France has one of the highest proportions of nuclear electricity in the world, at around 80%. Following Sweden's lead, they could well extend the lifetime of their plants for decades. The same applies to other European countries. In spite of the rhetoric touting renewables as the wave of the future and the only way to comply with the anti-fossil fuel provisions of the Kyoto Treaty, no European nation has been willing to put its eggs in the renewables basket.

To paraphrase a great African American poet, Langston Hughes, a dream deferred - in this case the illusion of every man sitting peacefully by his solar collector and windmill - is a dream that is dead. Vattenfall, the company that started by building the epitome of renewables, hydro dams, has made it so.

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