Viewpoint: Why is Sweden's government sacrificing its democratic tradition on nuclear waste?

25 August 2021

The Swedish government must make a decision on the application to construct a final high-level waste repository and not consider it separately from that for an expansion of the existing Clab interim repository for used fuel, write World Nuclear Association's Director General Sama Bilbao y León and Public Affairs Manager John Lindberg. Dividing the applications, they say, is a political game of 'Fox and Geese' that is extremely unworthy of an established democracy like Sweden.

Sama Bilbao y León and John Lindberg (Image: World Nuclear Association)

The story of nuclear waste is one with countless chapters, an issue that has caused heated debate across the world for many decades. As a result of the Conditions Act of 1977 stipulating that Swedish nuclear reactor operators had to show they could safely manage its waste, the Swedish nuclear power industry has led the global work to find sustainable management methods for its waste. Even though the final repository model KBS-3, developed by Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB (SKB), is undeniably a world leader from a scientific and technical perspective, it truly is in the work with local communities where Sweden has demonstrated international leadership. It is therefore extremely worrying to see how the Swedish government treats its more than 40-year-old democratic process, which has made Sweden a global role model.

It is no coincidence that while various repository projects around the world (e.g. the UK, the USA, Germany) have stalled due to lack of local acceptance, the projects in Sweden and Finland have slowly but surely moved forward. The Swedish model, with transparency, mutual trust and a process that involved stakeholders at every step, is widely regarded as best practice. The failed projects have one important common denominator: the permit process was politicised from an early stage. The Swedish government's attempt to politicise the process at the 11th hour, therefore, seems historically tone deaf.

That the Swedish government is now trying to break apart SKB's application for a final repository - even though it goes against decades of work and agreements across the political spectrum - is a political game of 'Fox and Geese' that is extremely unworthy of an established democracy like Sweden. It is particularly striking that the attempts at division take place despite the fact that both Oskarshamn and Östhammar municipalities - future hosts of the intermediary and final repositories - have opposed this. When the county administrative boards in Uppsala and Kalmar counties - the government's own representatives - warned that "an examination of the interim storage as an individual case in this situation would entail significant problems and risks from a legal certainty perspective", the warning bells should have rung far and wide.

It is a tragic fact that the Swedish government's dogmatic energy policy not only undermines the country's low-carbon energy future and climate goals, but also damages Sweden's reputation abroad. The fact that Vattenfall had to warn of serious operational disruptions and the shutdown of the majority of Sweden's reactors from 2024 due to the CLAB intermediate storage facility reaching its licence limit has caused the world to raise its eyebrows. That a Swedish government has resorted to handicap 30% of the country's electricity generation, causing extensive economic damage, both for individuals and the country as a whole through democratically dubious methods is, to say the least, astonishing.

This will also lead to severely erode confidence in Sweden as a country with a transparent, reliable and fair business climate. When the government tears up best practices in this fashion, it inadvertently establishes new processes that not only risk scaring away investment, but also directly strike at the heart of democracy. Unfortunately, this does not seem to matter in the corridors of power in Stockholm.

The fact that nuclear power has played a key role in establishing Sweden as a climate policy superpower cannot be underestimated. Nuclear power acted as an anchor in a world that has become increasingly turbulent and the production of cheap and fossil-free energy since 1963 was directly decisive for the prosperity Sweden enjoys today. With nuclear power, Sweden succeeded once and for all in proving that it is possible to separate economic growth and carbon dioxide emissions. As the majority of the world's population has not yet undergone this development phase, there is much to learn from Sweden. Unfortunately, it seems that the Swedish government has itself forgotten these lessons.

Two fundamental cornerstones of modern Sweden are at stake: electricity production and a prosperous democracy. The Swedish government must now stand up for - and protect - Swedish industry and defend the democratic process that all preceding governments - regardless of political affiliation - have respected. SKB's application for the final repository must be processed in its entirety, in line with the democratically established process and consultation responses from various authorities, the business community and local representatives. Anything else would be an extremely dark day for Sweden.

Sama Bilbao y León and John Lindberg

A version of this article was originally published by Second Opinion, titled Ovärdigt politiskt rävspel om slutförvar