Safety-Conscious Sweden Changes Course

Published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch
Friday, Dec 28, 2007


Nuclear power continues to gain converts in Europe. Sweden is the latest country to join the pro-nuclear movement. But, that wasn't always the case. After the near-disaster at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the major accident at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, European nations such as Sweden decided to begin phasing out nuclear power in 1995 and 1996.

Then, in 2006, the Swedes, who had closed two nuclear facilities and must import all their oil, asked themselves an important question: Shall we allow some of the existing nuclear power plants to operate, or shall we, ah, hmmmm . . . shall we turn up the thermostat and think about that one tomorrow?

When the pro-business Alliance for Sweden coalition won the Swedish national election in Oct. 2006, the new Swedish prime minister reversed a plan for "phasing out nuclear power" during his government's 2006-2010 term. He understood that electricity from nuclear power plants is much cheaper to generate than from gas, coal, or oil.

The Swedish people appear to be in agreement. A poll in June 2006 by the Swedish polling organization, TEMO, indicates public support for continuing nuclear power remains strong at 85 percent. Today 90 percent of Sweden's electricity production is generated by either hydro power or nuclear power.

SINCE IT IS naturally radioactive, uranium, usually in the form of uranium dioxide, is most commonly used in nuclear power plants to generate electricity. Currently, uranium is about $90 a pound. In 1990, uranium prices were much lower, at $12.55 per pound. According to industry experts, available uranium reserves are more plentiful on the planet now than fossil fuel reserves such as oil and gas.

Mark Saxon, vice president of Mawson Mining, a uranium mining company drilling in Sweden, describes the process: "It now takes an average of five years from discovery to the extraction of metal in the uranium mining field. Currently mineral prices are exceptionally high because of demand and the time requirements to mine this mineral." He went on to explain that it is still cheaper in the long run to mine this mineral than to find new fossil fuel sources.

According to the World Nuclear Association, Australia has the world's most extensive uranium reserves, amounting to 24 percent of total identified resources in 1997. Canada has reserves representing 9 percent of the world total, and Kazakhstan is emerging as a large uranium producer with 17 percent of the world's known uranium. African reserves are concentrated in three countries: Namibia, Niger, and South Africa, and together they represent 18 percent of the world's total resources. The U.S. has only 4 percent of the total world reserves.

When asked if the future of uranium mining will be affected by more efficient renewable energy supplies, Saxon, an Australian geologist, explains that the problem with renewable energy is the problem of storage.

"How do you store solar power? How do you store wind power? These issues will be solved in 20 years, but we need the power now."

CURRENTLY, Sweden has 10 working nuclear power plants. France is the European nuclear power leader with 58 nuclear power plants. It derives nearly 80 percent of its electricity from that source. Nuclear power is gaining popularity. Today Russia, Japan, China, and India are building nearly 100 new nuclear power plants, according to Doug Casey, an American investment newsletter publisher.

Many Americans worry about the safety aspects of storing nuclear waste from nuclear power facilities. Uranium and nuclear power expert Michael Conner, owner of Nuclear Resources International, says, "Nuclear power is technically safer than in the 1970s, and the industry has a self-policing enforcer called the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) that makes quite a few surprise inspections, which keeps everyone on their toes."

The Swedes, who have a world reputation for safety consciousness, are very cautious when it comes to the disposal of nuclear waste. It has taken them 50 years and counting to a completion date of 2017 to build a repository to house nuclear waste, but substantial progress has been made with public awareness and acceptance.

Given that today the United States obtains 20 percent of its energy from nuclear power, it should follow the Swedish example. Americans need the energy at reasonable prices until renewable energy is developed and deployed. As Democratic presidential contender Sen. Chris Dodd noted recently, "We're borrowing a billion dollars a day to bring fuel from offshore."

Why can't the U.S. follow the Swedish example and beef up our nuclear capacity in order to become more energy independent?

Lois Benton Lindstrom, who lived in Sweden from 1994-2004, is a journalist who resides in South Florida. She lived in Richmond in the '50s and '60s.