BERLIN, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Sweden has reversed a decision to phase out the country's nuclear reactors, following a trend in Europe that only a handful of countries are still ignoring.
On Thursday the Swedish center-right government agreed on an ambitious new climate package, which will include nuclear energy, it says.
The package not only includes bold measures to boost the share of renewables and reduce the country's carbon dioxide footprint (Sweden wants to become carbon-neutral by 2050). It also abolished the country's nearly three-decades-old nuclear phaseout law, lifting a ban on the construction of new nuclear power plants.
"It will be possible to grant permits for successively replacing current reactors as they reach the end of their technological and economic life," the government said in a statement, adding that as many as 10 new reactors could be built at existing plant sites. "The Nuclear Phaseout Act will be annulled," the statement said.
Nuclear power accounts for almost half of Sweden's power production. The phaseout law, drafted in 1980, has long been a source of political debate. The law initially foresaw shutting down all the country's plants by 2010, a rule that was scrapped in 1997 because the government realized it needed nuclear power to satisfy a growing demand for electricity.
Apart from nuclear energy, Sweden largely relies on hydropower, and the country is eager to push the distribution of other renewable energy sources, such as biomass and wind.
Because of growing pressure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, Sweden is experiencing a nuclear revival that is not confined to political backing only. A January 2008 poll conducted by the Synovate Institute showed that more Swedes are in favor of building new nuclear power plants than are against it. Observers say this shift in popular opinion is due mainly to the climate issue.
Sweden has now become one of many countries in Europe that have revived the controversial energy source.
Eighty percent of France's electricity is from nuclear plants, and Finland is currently building what will be the world's largest nuclear power plant.
Even with countries critical of nuclear power, the trend has long pointed toward a renaissance:
-- The Dutch government in 2005 reversed a nuclear phaseout law from 1994 and is currently probing whether to allow the construction of new plants.
-- Italy shut down its four nuclear power plants in the late 1980s. It is now planning to build several new reactors in neighboring Albania.
-- Belgium in 1999 restricted the running time of existing nuclear reactors to 40 years. In 2005 it extended that to 60 years.
-- Switzerland is considering building at least two new plants to replace its four aging reactors. Forty percent of the country's power comes from nuclear energy.
-- The British government in early 2008 urged companies willing to build reactors in the United Kingdom to come forward. French energy giant EDF has since announced it would be ready to build four nuclear plants in the United Kingdom, the first of which could go online in 2017.
The only large nation in Europe still clinging to a nuclear phaseout is Germany, the world's fourth-largest economy.
Germany in 1999 drafted a law that foresees all 17 currently operating German nuclear power plants being shut down by 2021. In a year that will see several state elections and a national election, this law is being fired at from all sides.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives have argued repeatedly that the running time of the most modern German atomic plants should be extended. They cite the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and worries over the security of supply as Europe's fossil resources are depleting.
"The rest of the world has understood that the issues of climate protection, security of supply and price stability clearly speak in favor of nuclear energy," Walter Hohlefelder, the head of a German nuclear association, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.
The center-left Social Democrats, backed by environmental groups, have harshly protested, pointing to nuclear energy's problems, such as reactor malfunctions with potentially catastrophic consequences, nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste storage. Clinging to atomic power, they say, only delays the necessary transition to an energy portfolio that is truly renewable.
However, even inside the Social Democrats, the ground is starting to shift. Observers say more and more lawmakers secretly side with Merkel's conservatives. She may not need that extra support. If the chancellor can form a coalition with the pro-nuclear liberal Free Democrats after this September's elections, the nuclear revival will reach Germany, too.