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The Birthplace of Flying Shame and Greta Thunberg Warms to Nuclear Energy

Jesper Starn
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The Birthplace of Flying Shame and Greta Thunberg Warms to Nuclear Energy

(Bloomberg) -- Nuclear energy advocates are sensing an opening in the environment shaming unleashed by Sweden’s most famous teenager, Greta Thunberg.

On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, a small group of reactor physicists, operators, politicians and even a former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency gathered to whip up support outside of parliament in Stockholm, the place where Thunberg started her protest.

Pushing leaflets and handing out balloons in front of a book-stand, their effort is a far cry from the millions marching around the world to demand lawmakers take action for the climate. But it’s a signal that Sweden is once again heading for a political showdown over whether to expand nuclear energy, a contentious issue all the way back to 1980 when Swedes voted to phase it out in a referendum.

“Two years ago none of the political parties wanted to talk about nuclear power, now everyone is talking about it,” said Marcus Eriksson, president of the Swedish nuclear society and one of the organizers of the event. “It reflects a stronger opinion that the technology has an important role to play to combat climate change.”

A majority of Swedes now believes that nuclear power could be a means to tackle the climate crisis, according to a June poll by Novus Opinion. That comes even as the nuclear industry is facing long delays and increased cost for key-projects in Finland, U.K. and France, at the same time as cost for building solar and wind power is getting lower and lower to a point where they do not need subsidies anymore.

With opinion shifting, the Moderate Party is now seeing an opening to halt the closure of several of Sweden’s older reactors and build support to potentially erect new ones. After a will-they-or-won’t-they period of several months, the party is gearing up for a showdown with the government on a three-year-old agreement, according to Lars Hjalmered, a lawmaker and the party’s spokesman on energy issues.

Hjalmered said that the Moderates, the largest opposition party, will leave the energy accord unless the government comes to the table again.

“More and more people are starting to realize that it is a very smart option for the climate,” he said.

The accord from 2016 is largely a bipartisan fudge. It states that Sweden should get all of its power from renewable electricity by 2040, but it doesn’t ban new nuclear plants or set an end date for the six reactors that are still expected to be in operation by then.

That compromise is now weighing on both the Moderates and their opposition colleagues, the Christian Democrats. They would like to renegotiate the current five-party deal to be more supportive of nuclear power or form a new compromise to include the Liberals and possibly the nationalist Sweden Democrats that strongly favors more reactors in Sweden.

As parliament stands today, they would need more allies from the center-left to get a majority, and none of the other parties have so far been willing to budge. The ruling Social Democrats, who where in power when a majority of the twelve reactors in Sweden where built, said they are happy to discuss the agreement, but remain committed to the central point of the compromise.

“The energy deal stays firm,’’ said Anders Ygeman, minister for energy and digitalization. “Five parties agreed on 100% renewable energy and five parties agreed to not put an end-date for nuclear power. I imagine it would be difficult to change that part of the agreement.’’

At the same time, Sweden is in dire need of a broad political agreement on energy policy after recent tax hikes for local power generation and a lack of grid capacity started hampering growth in the nation’s biggest cities.

Sweden’s energy minister has even said the government is considering cutting power exports to protect supply in the most vulnerable regions.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jesper Starn in Stockholm at jstarn@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at landberg@bloomberg.net, Jonas Bergman, Niklas Magnusson

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