Nuclear Mishap A Close Call with Catastrophe in Sweden?

An observer has called last week's mishap in Sweden the worst incident to befall a nuclear power plant since the accident at Chernobyl. Nobody was injured, but for 22 minutes, workers had no idea what was happening in the reactor's core. Swedish officials have taken half the country's nuclear power plants offline until it can ensure their safe operation.

Sweden's nuclear power station in Forsmark: the worst nuclear incident since Chernobyl and Harrisburg?

Sweden's nuclear power station in Forsmark: the worst nuclear incident since Chernobyl and Harrisburg?

Sweden's nuclear energy authority, SKI, has largely completed its reconstruction of events in an accident last week that led to the closure of a nuclear power plant in the city of Forsmark and, ultimately, the shutdown of half the country's nuclear plants as a precautionary measure. In the incident, two of the plant's four backup generators malfunctioned when the plant experienced a major power outage on July 25. According to officials, who described the event as "serious," a short-circuit triggered the accident, which caused a cut in power to the nuclear facility. Plant workers told Swedish media that it came close to a meltdown.

In fact, the only thing that appears to have stopped a catastrophe is the fact that two diesel backup generators kicked in, enabling the Forsmark facility to operate at least part of its emergency cooling system. Still, for 20 minutes, workers were unable to obtain information about the condition of the reactor and they were only able to respond after 21 minutes and 41 seconds, according to a report in Germany's Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper.

Swedish media are reporting that a previously unknown technical problem emerged during the emergency that could also be present in all other Swedish nuclear reactors.

In its first report, nuclear authority SKI claimed that operators of the nuclear plant had reacted correctly during the emergency. "In my opinion, the media is exaggerating the issue," said Jan Blomstrang, a member of SKI's committee for reactor security. The two generators that were still operating, he said, could have provided sufficient energy for the reactors if it had been necessary. The agency is expected to release a comprehensive report in the coming days.

On Thursday, Swedish officials shut down two further nuclear power plants as a safety precaution. Plant operators said the move was necessary because they could not guarantee the security of nuclear facilities in the city of Oskarshamm. A spokesman for the company that operates the Oskarshamm plant said he could not rule out the possibility of an incident happening like that at Forsmark.

After an emergency meeting of SKI officials, spokesman Anders Bredfall said that both nuclear power plants in Oskarshamm would be taken offline until investigators were able to deteremine whether the backup generators at that plant could fail in the same way as those in Forsmark.

Official: Worst incident since Chernobyl

Swedish nuclear energy expert Lars-Olov Högland, head of the construction department at Swedish utility company Vattenfall -- and onetime boss at the Forsmark reactor -- has described last week's problems as the "worst incident since Chernobyl and Harrisburg," a reference to the 1979 meltdown at Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania. He accused the plant's operators of trying to play down the seriousness of the event. For their part, officials at Swedish nuclear authority SKI have rejected Högland's assessment, describing it as "exaggerated."

Following the latest shutdowns, only five of Sweden's 10 nuclear power plants are still operating. Nuclear power accounts for close to half of the electricity produced in Sweden and the shutdowns triggered record price increases. But the Swedish government's energy agency said the nation's electricity supply was not currently at great risk because it can rely more on hydropower during the summer months.

Sweden is in the process of abandoning nuclear energy -- a policy that has led to the shut down of two of the country's total of 12 plants since 1999. However, against a backdrop of concerns about climate change and energy dependency, recent public opinion polls indicate that an increasing number of Swedes would like to go on using nuclear power.


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