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Safety Report: Swedish nuclear reactors have major security issues, needs to be shut down immediately

Last week Greenpeace released an alarming report about the state of Swedish nuclear power plants. According to the report, the security problems at the aging nuclear reactors in Sweden are so urgent that they should be shut down immediately to avoid any severe accidents. And on Tuesday this week around 70 Greenpeace activists managed, without much trouble, to get inside the area at two Swedish nuclear plants. A few activists even succeeded to hide from both the police and the plant’s security personnel for 38 hours before they had enough and announced themselves.

Rolf Lindahl, who worked on the safety report, says that a serious accident at any of the nuclear plants is just waiting to happen. With this report “we dispel the myth of Swedish nuclear power as safe”, Lindhal said to Swedish media. “Swedish nuclear power plants are old, have major security issues, there is a lack of staff and expertise and a large number of incidents has occurred.”

In the report, which is titled Risky Reactors, Greenpeace compiles numerous reports of incidents and investigations as well as results from the European wide nuclear stress tests that were performed shortly after the Fukushima disaster. It’s worth noting that Greenpeace has only examined the safety aspects related to the actual reactors and not nuclear power in general. Independent nuclear and safety experts have also helped Greenpeace in compiling and analyzing the information that is presented in their report. Today there are currently three active nuclear power plants in Sweden. There was also a fourth nuclear power plant located in Barsebäck on the Southwest side of Sweden, but after pressure from Denmark (it’s only twenty kilometers between Barsebäck and Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark) it was closed down in 2005.

Greenpeace has for decades been critical of the Swedish nuclear reactors, but their anti-nuclear campaign has gained more strength since 2010 when a small majority in the parliament voted in favor of allowing the nuclear reactors to be replaced at the end of their life span. In doing so the parliament voted against a referendum from 1980 where Sweden said no to new nuclear energy.

The Swedish nuclear reactors are old, really old. They were all built in the 70- and 80’s with an expected life span of around 25 years. By now all the reactors have exceeded their expected service life, with the oldest reactor having been in service for 40 years. And now energy companies and politicians alike are talking about extending the service life of these already old reactors for as long as up to 60 years. The energy companies also want to generate more energy from the nuclear reactors by increasing the reactor thermal power – basically they want to boil more water. But this will obviously put more strain on the reactors. So to be able to generate more energy, so that their shareholders can make even more money, the energy companies are investing in various upgrading and modernization projects at the nuclear plants. The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (SSM) has voiced their concerned about this saying that these investments can put “considerable strain” on the nuclear energy companies, which in turn can lead to “deficiencies” in their safety work.

Despite this, the energy companies have been given the go-ahead to boil more water. But several problems have occurred and many of these upgrades and modernization projects have been delayed which has resulted in long periods where the nuclear reactors have just stood still without producing any electricity. According to the Greenpeace report, the Swedish nuclear reactors were online and up and running for approximately 85% of the time between 2000 and 2005. And between the years 2006-2011 the uptime was only about 75%. As one can imagine this has affected the whole Swedish energy market, especially during the cold winter months in the country when the demand for electricity is the greatest.

Over the years the problems and incidents at the three nuclear power plants has been so extensive and serious that the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority have had to put two of them under special supervision. The nuclear plant Forsmark was under special supervision during the years 2006-2009 and Ringhals has been under special supervision since 2009.

The safety report provides several examples of incidents that have occurred in recent years, such as a fire in reactor containment, forgotten welding residues in an emergency cooling system, cracks in a reactor vessel, and a large number of so called “quick stops” as well as the explosives found at Ringhals. The Greenpeace report also highlights the shortcomings and weaknesses identified by the EU stress tests where they identify the Swedish nuclear plants inability to withstand accidents, partly as a result of natural disasters and extreme weather events, as well as deficiencies in the accident preparedness. The report is also very critical of the inability to protect the nuclear plants from attacks. Protection against sabotage is inadequate, the report concludes. And because the security staffs at the facilities are unarmed there is no way to immediately intervene against violent attackers pending police forces. There is also a lack of coordination between the nuclear operators, the security staff and the police.

On average, there has been nearly a security related incident a day at the Swedish nuclear power plants in the 2000s, the safety report concludes.

The independent nuclear expert Oda Becker concludes in his own stress test report that the security situation is so acute that all Swedish nuclear power plants should be immediately taken out of service:

“Due to the insufficient protection against natural hazards and the high number of latent faults the probability of a loss of power and/or loss UHS situation is relative high, but appropriate measures to cope with such accident situations are lacking, thus the
risk of a core melt accident with major radioactive releases is relative high
. All Swedish units should stop operation as soon as possible – for comprehensive backfitting measures or to shut down permanently.”

You can see the potential fall-out from Swedish nuclear reactors here.

According to Greenpeace these problems are the result of energy companies down prioritizing the safety work at the nuclear plants for economic gains. Instead of putting safety first they have focused on producing more electricity. A 2006 report done by Vattenfall, one of the nuclear energy companies in Sweden, reinforces this claim by Greenpeace. The report, which was done after an incident in 2006 at the Forsmark nuclear plant, showed that the company since the end of the 1990’s has focused more and more on the economy and production aspects instead of the safety work.

In the report Greenpeace criticizes the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (SSM) which they say is too lax in their procedures and safety checks. They also accuse the government body of playing down previous nuclear incidents. Greenpeace connects this to the fact that a majority of the inspectors at SSM are people who have previously worked for the nuclear industry. Out of 14 inspectors 10 have previously worked at one of the nuclear power plants they are now supposed to monitor. Greenpeace say that loyalty to previous employers and colleagues therefor risk undermining the quality of the security work done by SSM.

Greenpeace now demands that Lena Ek, the Swedish environment minister, takes action and ensure that the “dangerous reactors are immediately removed from service.”

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