Sweden’s nuclear scare sparks protests

The recent incident at a nuclear reactor in Sweden where back-up generators failed during a power cut has sparked protests and debate about the future of Europe's nuclear industry.

Following the incident at the Forsmark 1 reactor, which Swedish nuclear expert Lars-Olov Hogland said was ‘almost as serious’ as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, activists in Germany and Sweden called for nuclear power to be phased out as promised by the governments of both countries.

It is still not clear how far Sweden came to a Chernobyl-style explosion, as the exact causes of the incident are still being investigated. Mr Hogland said it was “pure luck that there was not a meltdown,” but industry representatives have scoffed at such claims.

Four of Sweden’s ten nuclear reactors were shut down temporarily following the July 25 incident due to safety concerns, and remained offline this Wednesday.

Sweden, which depends on atomic power for over 40% of its electricity, agreed to phase out nuclear by 2010 following a 1980 referendum. But these plans have been put on the back burner in the light of rising energy prices, and a 2006 survey revealed broad support among Swedes for continuing reliance on nuclear power.

The Forsmark incident has brought anti-nuclear protesters onto the streets and the future of the Sweden’s ten nuclear reactors back onto the political agenda ahead of next month’s national elections.

Protests have now spread to neighbouring Germany, strengthened by news that the faulty components which allegedly caused the incident were made by German firm AEG, and used in other nuclear plants in Sweden, Germany and other European countries.

It also emerged that Swedish utilities firm Vattenfall which operates Forsmark runs some of Germany’s nuclear plants.

Germany gets 30% of its electricity from nuclear, with a phase-out decided in a 2000 agreement between the government and the nuclear industry. German campaigners are now pushing for the phase out to be completed as planned.

After a power cut on July 25, two out of the Forsmark reactor’s four back-up generators called into action failed, although the emergency shut down system functioned as expected, Swedish nuclear regulator SKI said.

Back-up generators are required to cool the reactor, which continues to produce heat even after it is shut down. “If the other two subs had been knocked out as well this would have led to a total loss of power,” the Swedish nuclear regulator said in a report. Without power to run its cooling system, a reactor can easily spin out of control, leading to nuclear meltdown as experienced in Chernobyl in 1986.

Despite the fact that four Swedish reactors were shut down following the incident, with plans to carry out additional safety tests, campaigners have warned that the episode could repeat itself.

Environmental NGO Greenpeace called for a phase-out of nuclear and more investment in renewables.

“In the UK, a generator failure like Sweden’s could easily happen and the result could be a meltdown in the reactor core,” Greenpeace said.

“Nuclear power relies on old, inefficient centralised power grids that are vulnerable to power cuts.”

“Unfortunately a small minority of other European countries like France, Finland and the UK seem determined to rely on dangerous, dirty and expensive nuclear power that can fail dangerously during a power cut and be shut down by droughts.”

Goska Romanowicz

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