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Mixing nuclear and wind in Sweden

With nuclear power enjoying a broad political renaissance in both Europe and America, governments are starting to talk about mixing it with renewables to provide the ultimate low-carbon electricity supply. Sweden, it seems, may be the first country to not only voice the theory, but experiment with putting it into practice. How the country intends to pursue a policy of both more nuclear and more wind power remains unclear.

While the Swedish wind association is happy to accept the rise of nuclear power, Greenpeace is aghast that the industry apparently fails to realise that if it does not highlight nuclear's failings, particularly on economics, wind will never realise its full potential

With nuclear power enjoying a broad political renaissance in both Europe and America, governments are starting to talk about mixing it with renewables to provide the ultimate low-carbon electricity supply. Sweden, it seems, may be the first country to not only voice the theory, but experiment with putting it into practice. How the country intends to pursue a policy of both more nuclear and more wind power remains unclear. More nuclear inevitably mean less wind, particularly as a relatively inflexible nuclear-based power system is not a good a match for high penetrations of a variable power supply.

Of the four Scandinavian countries, Sweden and Finland belong firmly in the nuclear camp, while Norway and Denmark remain determinedly anti-nuclear. Indeed, Denmark is heading for a power system with wind as the dominant energy source by 2025, while Norway is still dashing for gas. On the Scandinavian nuclear axis, Finland is building the first new nuclear plant seen in western Europe in 15 years, a 1600 MW facility known as Olkiluoto-3, and has no serious plans for wind power at all. Sweden, with ten nuclear plants generating around 45% of the country's electricity, is aiming for 17 TWh of renewables generation a year by 2016, with 9 TWh of that to come from wind, or about 5% of the 162 TWh of estimated total consumption in 2016. About 6000 MW of wind capacity would be needed to meet the target. Today's 500 MW of wind power produces just 0.8 TWh.

With such a modest renewables goal, there is plenty of latitude for pursuit of a program of nuclear expansion. In recent months, the country has become one of the most receptive to nuclear in the European Union. A new Eurobarometer report finds 32% of Swedes in favour of nuclear, compared with 27% of Finns and a survey in April by Gothenburg-based SOM Institute finds that exactly half of Swedes do not favour dismantling the country's nuclear power stations.

The issue has been more and more in the press spotlight, with right-leaning parties bashing wind and praising nuclear with no real comparison of costs or pros and cons. It is all a far cry from 25 years ago, when in a 1980 referendum the country voted to phase out all its nuclear plants by a tentative date of 2010, replacing them with renewables. Since then the government has managed to close just two, one in 1999 and the other last year.

A surprising response

Surprisingly, the Swedish wind lobby does not regard the return of nuclear's popularity as a threat. "We don't want it to be a debate of wind versus nuclear," says Gunnar Fredriksson of the Swedish Windpower Investors and Producers Association, known as VIS. "You could say that the nuclear lobby is very strong, but I don't think it affects the question of wind power support. Those who favour nuclear can favour wind, too."

Some statistics back Fredriksson's assertion. Researchers Sören Holmberg and Per Hedberg, both contributors to a new book on Swedish public opinion, say the favourable attitude towards wind is about as high as it can get and currently unaffected by the views on nuclear. "It's very stable, and we've been measuring since 1999," Hedberg says. "There's already so large a percentage -- seventy-two percent -- who say they want to have more wind power in Sweden, that I can only speculate that rising prices on electricity and petroleum will make it more attractive for producers as a more economic solution."

A lack of catastrophes and specific anti-nuclear campaigns has led to slowly rising approval of nuclear, adds Holmberg. "Catastrophes and campaigns are what primarily move nuclear power attitudes," he says. "It's the CC-theory."

Greenpeace Sweden's Martina Krüger agrees with Holmberg that since the Swedish government decided in 1987 to go ahead with dismantling nuclear, anti-nuclear campaigns and lobbying have had a hard time getting attention. It is as if the government thinks, "We've decided. You've won...now go away,'" she says.

She is appalled that Sweden's wind industry is not prepared to stand up and pointedly underscore nuclear's pitfalls. "We've always said you can't build out nuclear and renewables. Why isn't the discussion out there that nuclear isn't cost effective?" Krüger asks. "Enough screaming from the wind industry about the true cost of nuclear might get it out to the public. I don't think the industry has anything to lose."

Swedish energy expert Tomas Kårberger says the wind industry's reluctance to take on nuclear is explained by history. "Since 1980 you've either been classified as pro-nuclear, or against nuclear and thus anti-industrial," Bamberger says. "Because of that split it's been hard for the wind industry to dialogue with industrial actors. It may be an advantage for the wind industry if we're leaving that split behind -- if it's possible to be in favour of wind and nuclear."

But while VIS says it wants to move past the wind versus nuclear rhetoric, pro-nuclear forces currently may not. Sweden's Moderate party, campaigning hard in anticipation of September's general election, says in the same breath that it wants to "further develop Swedish nuclear" but that while wind may have its place in the Swedish energy system it must stand on its own without "massive and expensive" state subsidies. The Moderates' fail to acknowledge, however, that no nuclear plant has ever been built without "massive and expensive" state subsidies.

Nuclear loans at 2.6%

Except, some think, Finland's Olkiluoto-3 reactor that France's Areva and Germany's Siemens are building on Finland's west coast. Already at least nine months behind schedule, Olkiluoto-3 has been touted as a totally privately commissioned plant supposed to cost approximately 3.2 billion. Teollisuuden Voima, the company that will run the plant, got a fixed price on the contract, which means overruns will be paid for by Areva and Siemens. The financing of Olkiluoto-3 included some favourable loans at 2.6% interest from a group of banks including Germany's Bayerische Landesbank, French BNP Paribas, Scandinavia's Handelsbanken and Nordea and JP Morgan, according to anti-nuclear activist web site Olkiluoto.info. Those terms allow the cost of Olkiluoto's power to be estimated at EUR 25/MWh, compared with a mid-range wind cost of EUR 50/MWh (Windpower Monthly, January 2006).

Range of options

The Finnish government is contemplating yet another reactor. A recent survey by media group Aamulehti revealed that half of the members of the parliament group that would make the decision, probably within the next year, were supportive of more nuclear. But Juoko Sinnari, chairman of the group, stresses that adding new nuclear is not a definitive solution to the country's energy needs. "The most sensible approach is to include a range of energy options in future government policy," he says. "Apart from nuclear power we should be looking at electricity production from wind power, solar, and bioenergy."

Finnish trade and industry minister Mauri Pekkarinen goes a step further and expresses "serious reservations" about nuclear expansion. "There may be valid reasons to build, but I fear to do so would jeopardize and impede investment in renewable energies such as wind power and biofuels. Renewable energy is underdeveloped in Finland and this situation might continue if parliament approved a sixth reactor," Pekkarinen says. Wind power provided 0.1% of total electricity consumption in Finland in 2005.

In Sweden, state-owned utility Vattenfall clearly suffers from the same split-personality regarding wind and nuclear. The company's president Lars Josefsson told a UN committee in New York in May that nuclear energy was not a panacea for climate change. Meanwhile, Nils Andersson, head of Nordic production for Vattenfall, stated recently that wind power, hydroelectric power and increased nuclear production at Swedish plants will fill future energy needs. Vattenfall puts its planned investment in nuclear safety and upgrades at its existing domestic facilities at SKK 24 billion (EUR 2.5 billion).

In a debate two months ago on Swedish television, Andersson implied that the same SKK 24 billion invested in wind would be relatively inefficient, giving "merely" 5 TWh. Vattenfall aims to invest SEK 1.5 billion (EUR 160 million) in building the 110 MW Lillgrund offshore wind plant and around SKK 8 billion (EUR 853 million) into the 640 MW Krieger's Flak offshore wind project.

Unclear government

The current Swedish government, while clear in its endorsement of wind, is somewhat murky on nuclear's future role. Sustainability Minister Mona Sahlin says wind can and should replace nuclear. At the same time she says nuclear will not be dismantled until the wind capacity is available.

"That's where they are in lulu land...that's just not how it works," Krüger says. "If they came out and said, okay we're closing down nuclear in three or five or ten years, we need 20 TWh of renewables to replace it, that's when the real investments happen, and that's when people will accept what they might consider the small nuisance of wind -- for the greater good."

Hannele Holttinen of VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland says the volume of hydro in the Swedish -- and thereby the Nordic -- energy pool makes it technically feasible to operate a nuclear system with a significant volume of wind power. But if wind were developed to its full potential, the nuclear base load would have to reduce production in windy periods of low demand. That would mean reduced income for nuclear operators and perhaps make it difficult for them to meet debt repayments.

Swedish energy expert Kårberger agrees that adding more wind to the system is not yet a technical risk. What Kårberger objects to is the lack of a clear indication of the true price of nuclear. He conducted research for many years in the 1990s to try to determine the costs of the most recent Swedish nuclear plants, but the data was hard to obtain and when it was obtained, not economically cheering for plant owners. "The real costs were embarrassing -- two to three to four times more than the kilowatt hour electricity price in those days," he says.

Political hypocrisy

Wind may be consigned to play less than a leading role in Swedish power generation, Kårberger surmises, unless data about the total costs of nuclear versus wind are clear to all consumers. "It's very important to reveal the political hypocrisy about subsidies to nuclear, which are discreetly denied or hidden," he says. "It creates an unjustified image that wind is expensive and nuclear is cheaper."

Unfortunately, the voices most likely to outline the costs and benefits of wind power versus nuclear power are environmental groups, Kårberger says, but in Sweden they have of late "been rather weakly staffed with energy experts."

Krüger says she is uncertain if new activist organisations in addition to Greenpeace are available or ready to make the case against nuclear power and for wind. She feels the wind industry is responsible for laying the groundwork.

But VIS's Fredriksson says he believes wind comes out ahead of nuclear on both price and security questions and friendly coexistence is possible. "I feel there's enough money out there for both nuclear and wind," he says. "Wind power has the advantage that it will attract foreign investors. And Vattenfall will in a couple of years be by far the largest investor in wind power in Sweden. That's good." Fredriksson seems to be hoping that market economics will play their role and Vattenfall will discover for itself that wind is cheaper than nuclear, all things being equal from government.

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