From an ousted energy type to a long-term contribution to the energy mix of the future. Sweden has taken on a new direction in its energy policy, which has opened the previously closed door to nuclear power expansion. This will require a major investment in knowledge going forward.
In the referendum in 1980, Sweden voted for nuclear power to be phased out at the rate that was possible. 43 years later, there has been a change of course in energy policy. Incumbent politicians have decided that nuclear power should be included as one of the types of energy in the energy mix of the future. The new goal is for Sweden to have 100 percent fossil fuel-free electricity production, instead of a 100 percent renewable production.
“To cope with climate, sustainability, and environmental issues, we need to produce more electricity,” says Johan Sandstedt, Research and Business Developer at RISE. “The new energy policy direction means that we add another colour to the palette when we paint Sweden’s energy future.”
“It’s important that we don’t pit different solutions against each other; we should instead view them as very different instruments in an orchestra where you need just the right amount of brass and just the right amount of violin for it to be a harmonious whole,” says Markus Norström, Business and Innovation Area Manager at RISE. “All types of power have different characteristics, opportunities, and problems, which is why it’s so important that we have diversity. Diversity builds resilience.”
Nuclear power can provide heat and hydrogen
“The political decision to reopen the door to nuclear power expansion is justified by the fact that Sweden needs more fossil fuel-free, cheap, and planned electricity – but there is potential to use future nuclear reactors for additional purposes,” says Sandstedt.
“The heat from a reactor can also be used for various industrial processes, such as running a reactor to produce heat instead of electricity. The chemical industry and steel industry are two examples of industries that are dependent on heat. We run research projects at RISE in which we investigate how the heat from nuclear power can be used directly in industrial processes.
“Another potential application is hydrogen production. There is technical potential to produce hydrogen much more energy-efficiently using future nuclear reactors. Hydrogen is a key component for the industrial and transport transition.”
En avgörande faktor för att investeringar i ny kärnkraft verkligen ska bli av är att kunna hantera affärsrisker över lång tid
Maintaining knowledge crucial for expansion
The expansion of nuclear power will place demands on our society for a long time. Both knowledge and infrastructure must be maintained.
“The issue regarding waste must also be handled responsibly and safely throughout the service life,” says Sandstedt. “Today, however, I would say no other industry takes care of its residual products in such a consistent way as the nuclear industry. In the long term, it’s likely that we will have new types of reactors that can use the fuel up to 100 times more and not leave behind as much waste as today’s reactors.”
“A crucial factor for real investments in new nuclear power is to be able to manage business risks over a long period of time,” says Norström. “One example is to find a working revenue model for future nuclear power projects that will last for several decades. The electricity market has been dynamic in recent years, to say the least, and it’s a bit difficult to know what the price of electricity will be down the line. Finding a functioning revenue model and someone who dares to take the risk is challenging, but not impossible.”
Johan Sandstedt and Markus Norström consider RISE and other Swedish research actors to have an important task in generating new knowledge about nuclear power in order to support industry and the public sector in these issues.
“The last time we built a nuclear power plant in Sweden was in the 70s and 80s,” says Sandstedt. “It was a successful programme. Reactors were built both within budget and according to schedule. But this was not something that just happened, it was the result of almost 30 years of knowledge building in the field. Since then, this area of expertise has been dismantled, which is where society now stands.”
“Surrounding issues are the big challenge”
Expanding nuclear power is not mainly about developing new, better reactors. Issues relating to concrete construction, safety, material knowledge, national defence, resilience, and civil society must also be addressed.
“The surrounding issues are the big challenge,” asserts Norström. “Here, RISE has a broad base of expertise that we are now actively developing and adopting into a nuclear perspective.
“We are pleased that both the energy industry and research funders have now begun to act to promote the development of a larger knowledge base in nuclear power.
NUCLEAR POWER IN BRIEF – FROM PHASING OUT TO PART OF THE MIX
In 1980, the Swedish people voted on the future of nuclear power. At that time, it was decided that Sweden would use the nuclear reactors that were in operation pending the availability of renewable energy sources. Nuclear power was to be phased out at the rate that was possible, while taking into account the need for electric power to maintain business and welfare. No new reactors were to be built.
In January 2023, the government submitted a proposal to remove the provision in the Swedish Environmental Code that prohibits the construction of nuclear reactors in places other than where one already exists. The amendment will enable the expansion of nuclear power. The decision is justified in light of the ongoing electrification of society and transition away from fossil fuels, which requires more clean electricity throughout the country.