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STOCKHOLM, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Nearly thirty years after Sweden voted to phase out nuclear energy, firms are quietly increasing plant capacity and there is no end in sight for a power source still providing half of the nation’s electricity.
Sweden’s Centre party was at the forefront of demands for a referendum on scrapping nuclear power after a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in the United States in 1979.
But Energy Minister Maud Olofsson, a member of the Centre party, toned down the party’s anti-nuclear stance to build the current ruling coalition.
Her State Secretary Ola Altera has a similarly tolerant view of nuclear power, despite a raft of problems at Sweden’s own nuclear plants in the past two years.
“In the short term, it is not really realistic, especially since the climate issue has stepped forward as the main priority,” Altera told Reuters on Thursday when asked about a timetable for a nuclear phase out.
“If you analyse nuclear, it has a lot of drawbacks, the future is not in expanding nuclear,” he said.
But for now nuclear is here to stay, especially as its main advantage is that it generates power without carbon emissions.
“We can see what has happened,” said Altera. “It (nuclear phase-out) has been a very slow process.”
The present government’s mandate runs until 2010. Between now and then, it will not close down any of Sweden’s 10 reactors, but neither will it decide to build any more.
After that, the role of nuclear power will be discussed as part of an energy action plan taking the nation up to 2020.
Power companies, meanwhile, are investing in nuclear.
State-run Vattenfall VATN.UL, majority owner of the Forsmark and Ringhals nuclear plants, is spending 25 billion Swedish Krona ($3.85 billion) on them between now and 2016.
The investment will help to bring on 8 terawatt hours of new capacity at the plants -- around as much as a new reactor -- as well as safety and security improvements following Sweden’s worst-ever nuclear safety incident that hit Forsmark last year.
No-one was hurt and no radiation leaked into the environment, but Sweden’s safety record was tarnished and its vulnerability to power outages highlighted.
“If the problems at Forsmark had happened in the deep winter, we would have been in deep trouble,” Altera said.
The immediate solution is an intense safety drive and an inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
For the future, the solution is to find alternatives -- such as using the country’s extensive forests to produce biofuels -- and to improve efficiency.
As a former board member of Euroheat and Power, Altera is a staunch advocate of district heating, which he said was extremely efficient for densely-populated areas and provided about half Sweden’s heating.
Altera said he was “quite confident” Sweden could phase out fossil fuel for heating by 2020. Already, its use has been cut to only 10 percent.
Phasing fossil fuel out altogether could be a greater challenge than scrapping nuclear.
Sweden attracted international attention last year over a discussion document drawn up by Sweden’s previous government that suggested the nation should wean itself off oil by 2020.
The European Union’s (EU) focus on reducing the carbon emissions blamed for global warming was, he said, accelerating the drive for alternatives to oil that has stalled for years.
In general, the EU was moving in the right direction, but Sweden aimed to move faster.
It is leaping ahead of EU plans for a single, liberalised energy market with a proposed Nordic grid to maximise efficiency across Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.
“We have the best functioning regional energy market in Europe ... We want to be at the forefront in the future ... We want to be two steps ahead,” Altera said.
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