Viewpoint: The atom made Sweden a climate hero

13 January 2020

Sweden has been a great nation for many decades thanks, not to military might nor financial muscle, but to its energy policy. A leader in sustainable development, the country undeniably proved that it is possible to cut emissions dramatically and increase living standards. And it proved this long before climate change became the political issue it is today, write Agneta Rising and John Lindberg, respectively, director general and writer & analyst at World Nuclear Association.

Agneta Rising and John Lindberg (Image: World Nuclear Association)

The stable production of electricity is one of the cornerstones of both welfare and industry. Nuclear power has for many years been supplying Swedish homes and businesses with cheap, sustainable and reliable electricity, whilst also subsidising alternative electricity sources through special levies.

Around the world, nuclear power generates the most economic and competitive electricity from a holistic perspective - low operational costs, the lowest emissions and only very little waste in comparison to the amount of electricity generated. Among power producers with low carbon dioxide emissions, nuclear power has not only the lowest system costs, but also stabilises the whole grid and defends us against the fickleness of the weather. This has been confirmed through modelling by two of the world’s leading organisations in the field - the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the OECD-Nuclear Energy Agency.

The IEA has also shown that operating existing reactors for longer is one of the most cost-effective ways to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, Swedish energy policy is now leading to unnecessary closures of well-functioning nuclear power plants, which causes power deficits and consequently harms all of society.

It is not only Sweden’s neighbours in the Nordics and the Baltics - beneficiaries of the fossil-free and stable nuclear energy Sweden exports - who are following Swedish energy politics with considerable interest. There is a considerable symbolic and political value in a traditional nuclear power country with a strong environmental reputation - such as Sweden - actively believing in the future of nuclear power.

Sweden has a moral obligation, coupled with maintaining the highest standards of living, to support energy solutions that deliver the most efficiently in parts of the world which are not as well off. A first step towards a better life is access to stable electricity supply. In many parts of the world, this means coal and if the choice is between burning coal and having no electricity, the choice is rather simple.

However, Sweden must ensure that developing countries avoid the mistakes which many now-developed countries made, and that they instead follow Sweden’s development curve. The Swedish nuclear power programme ensured that our increased demand for electricity was supplied by the atom, rather than by coal. If developing countries were to rely on the atom too, this would result in faster development, ensuring that they would be able to reach the same living standards as Sweden much sooner.

We cannot afford to wait - we need all parts of the puzzle to solve some of our time’s greatest challenges. Climate change will affect the poorest and most vulnerable first. If we do not act with resolve, this will have significant humanitarian consequences.

Sweden can be proud of its reactors and the people who run them; these unsung climate heroes, whose work has been taken for granted for decades. Nuclear reactors around the world make up the low-carbon backbone which many countries are relying upon, capable of producing enormous amounts of electricity at low cost, independent of weather and season.

Nuclear power is a fighter in the battle against air pollution and poverty, building economic wellbeing, strengthening energy security and combatting climate change. With the help of nuclear energy, we will be able to build a cleaner, more sustainable, and fairer world.

Agneta Rising and John Lindberg (@JohnCHLindberg)

The text is an abridged version of an article that appeared (in Swedish) in Second Opinion on 2 January.