For some, nuclear energy is a clean(er), low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels, while for others it detracts from the transition to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind. It is an especially salient debate in the European Union, with its ambitious climate goals—as well as the practical challenges it faces in meeting them.
Currently, nuclear energy accounts for approximately a quarter of the electricity produced in the EU, and for some Member States, like France, this figure can go up to almost three-quarters. However, a number of other Member States, notably Germany, have made commitments to completely phase out nuclear energy due to safety concerns. According to the European Parliament, nuclear energy can be said to constitute a “critical component” in the energy mix of 13 EU Member States, out of the overall 27.
Public opinion has generally waxed and waned in accordance with global nuclear accidents, affecting the appetite for nuclear energy differently in different EU countries. In particular, nuclear energy has gotten to be much more controversial of an issue after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, and more recently following the Fukushima accident in 2011.
For Sweden, in particular, the Three Mile Island accident that took place in the United States in 1979 was quite significant. It was soon after this nuclear disaster that a referendum was held in 1980, resulting in the stopping of nuclear power capacity expansion.
Another stipulation of this referendum was that all nuclear power plants would be closed by 2010. Nonetheless, due to the rise in electricity demand and the desire for this demand to be met by low-carbon energy sources, this date has been postponed for the time being.
There is currently a debate raging on in Sweden, especially in the Parliament, regarding what exactly “clean energy” is. While some argue that it refers exclusively to renewable sources, such as solar, wind, and hydro energy, others see it to mean non-fossil fuel sources of energy—a grouping which would (and as argued by its proponents, should) include nuclear energy.
The matter of nuclear energy is especially critical to Sweden given that it generates 40% of its electricity through nuclear power plants. Germany had faced a similar, if not as severe, predicament in 2011, when it decided to phase out nuclear energy, as it was obtaining about 25% of its electricity from nuclear power plants. This figure is now at a little over 10%, though now the importance of coal has become a problem, accounting for 40% of Germany’s electricity.
Various Swedish opposition parties, namely the Moderate Party, wish to avoid a similar fate and thus are stressing nuclear energy usage as a mostly carbon-free source of electricity. On the other hand, the Green Party—currently a coalition party of the Social Democrats—opposes this approach, arguing the stress should be on developing wind and solar energy, not a dangerous source like nuclear.
This debate was ramped up recently due to the closure of a fully functional nuclear reactor, Ringhals 1, as a result of low profitability. Ringhals 1 was the second reactor to be closed on the site within the past year, with two other reactors remaining in the particular site. Nation-wide, there are currently six nuclear reactors that are operating.
While Sweden has postponed the date of shutting down all nuclear power plants, there are still measures that work against nuclear energy. One example is that of the nuclear capacity tax—a tax which is applied particularly on electricity that is derived from nuclear reactors, penalizing nuclear energy in comparison with other sources.
Such measures can be seen as playing a part in the low profitability problems referred to by the state power company that operated Ringhals 1, Vattenfall. As the company’s CEO had said in 2016, "The abolishment of the nuclear tax is needed in order to secure continued operation of our nuclear power plants (...) Combined with falling electricity prices, the current nuclear tax is contributing to a critical situation in which none of our reactors are profitable."
While this may be seen as the exact purpose of such a tax—to disincentivize nuclear energy—public opinion seems to be turning slightly more positive regarding nuclear. The percentage of people wanting to invest more in nuclear energy has increased from 15% to 21%, and those wanting to completely close all nuclear power plants decreasing from 19% to 15%.
Such a shift in public opinion accompanies how some climate scientists have begun to argue in favor of nuclear power. As Johan Rockström, a Swedish professor at the University of Potsdam has said, “My conclusion is that the climate threat is greater than the threat from nuclear power.”
Given such an approach, and the accompanying shift that seems to be taking place in public opinion, it is possible that nuclear energy may make a comeback, at least as a transition fuel at a time when Sweden is in need of much greater amounts of clean electricity.