The Nuclear Sell: Why One Swedish Town Welcomes a Waste Dump

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Hosting a permanent nuclear waste repository is not high on the list for most municipalities. But residents of the Swedish town of Östhammar are 77 percent in favor. Transparency on the part of politicians and industrial leaders has made the difference.

The Baltic Sea is still frozen over off the Swedish coast at the site of the Forsmark nuclear power plant, where a short drive up a narrow gravel road leads to a peninsula with a small, man-made lake at its tip.

The honey-colored reeds bend in a wet breeze -- not exactly nice weather for taking a walk outside. Nevertheless, Stefan Edelsvärd is standing on the shoreline of the small lake, which is always at least 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the ocean. Its temperature is kept artificially high by the cooling water from three nuclear reactors, which comes rushing out of a two-kilometer (1.25-mile) tunnel and flows into the lake at a rate of 85,000 liters (22,457 gallons) per second.

Edelsvärd nods his head in the direction of the lake. "I like coming here in the summer when the weather is bad," he says, "because the lake is as warm as a swimming pool by then. The kids really like swimming in it."

Edelsvärd, a slender man in his mid-50s, is wearing a light trench coat and jeans. He isn't dressed for such an icy wind, but he claims that he doesn't feel the cold. It's all a question of attitude and willpower, he says. Edelsvärd, who once taught history and politics, now organizes exhibits and other projects in Östhammar, a town of 22,000 inhabitants a two-hour drive north of Stockholm.

Edelsvärd bought a weekend house here 10 years ago. It's only 200 meters (656 feet) from his deck to the beach, where you can see the reactors. But the view doesn't make him uneasy, he says. In fact, he still feels good about his purchase today, and he feels that real estate prices are actually going up.

A Less-Than-Inspiring View

"When you sit outside in the summer with a glass of wine, you can see the most beautiful sunset on the east coast of Sweden," Edelsvärd says.

But in the gray light of an overcast day, without a glass of wine in your hand, the view of the reactors -- three large white boxes jutting out of a Swedish forest -- seems less then inspiring.

In fact, the view resembles that of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan before the recent disaster. But even Fukushima is not a subject that can dampen Edelsvärd's enthusiasm over his vacation house.

It's a matter of trust, he says, noting that he has a great deal of confidence in those three reactors out there, even though they operate according to the same boiling-water principle as the ill-fated reactors in Fukushima.

If Edelsvärd were to appear as a guest on a German television talk show, he might have to request security protection after the broadcast. He would be seen as a freak, a lunatic or a nuclear industry lobbyist dangerous to public safety in a country where politicians are scrambling to find the fastest way to phase out a form of energy that everyone now sees as diabolical.

Unusually Close Ties to Nuclear Energy

Edelsvärd is no misfit in Östhammar. Instead, he reflects how most people feel. One in five jobs in the community is related to the three reactors, the youngest of which has already been in operation for 25 years. As a result, local residents feel an unusually close bond to nuclear energy -- so close, in fact, that Östhammar has even applied for approval as the site for a permanent repository for nuclear waste. In an opinion poll, some 77 percent of residents said they supported the idea.

If all goes according to plan and the will of Östhammar's residents, Sweden's most hazardous nuclear waste will be stored there starting in 2020. The highly toxic radioactive material -- which will continue to emit radiation for at least another 100,000 years -- would be kept in a repository 500 meters below the surface. In fact, Östhammar would be the first place in the world where this is even possible.

People are doing well in Östhammar, says Edelsvärd. With unemployment at only 2 percent, he adds, the residents of the town wouldn't have had any need for the repository.

And yet most of them were determined to have it.

For years, local officials were worried that another town with a nuclear power plant -- Oskarshamn, which is 465 kilometers away and was also vying to be the site of the repository -- would end up winning the contest. The two towns decided to make a deal. The company building the repository, Svensk Kärnbränslehantering (SKB), would provide two billion Swedish krona, or about €223 million ($312 million), of which the runner-up would receive 75 percent and the winner only 25 percent.

Some might say it was an attractive incentive for one of the towns to step on the brakes and come in second place.

But not in this contest.

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