The Nuclear Sell Why One Swedish Town Welcomes a Waste Dump

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.

Expressing Joy, Swedish-Style

The decision was made on a rainy summer day in 2009. Edelsvärd remembers the day very clearly. Östhammar town officials were sitting at the town hall, watching a live broadcast of the showdown in Stockholm. When the name of their community appeared on the screen, Edelsvärd says that "people weren't cheering the way they would at a football match, but you could sense the feeling of elation in the room. It was a very Swedish way of expressing joy."

It's an odd thing to feel elated about, at least from the perspective of people in Germany and everywhere else in the world, where the issue of nuclear waste storage remains unresolved.

Over the decades, thousands of spent fuel rods have accumulated in Germany. In the past, they were sent abroad for reprocessing, but today they are temporarily stored in ordinary warehouses around the country or in containers in Gorleben and Ahaus in western Germany. Even if the nuclear phase-out  happens quickly, roughly 17,000 tons of radioactive materials will eventually require disposal. There is no realistic plan for approaching the problem, but there is a battleground: Gorleben, the planned site for a permanent repository in the eastern part of Lower Saxony. More than anything else, the conflict over the location -- which has been going on since the 1970s -- highlights how a plan can go completely wrong.

Most People Against the Project

There have been quiet times at Gorleben, like the one that followed the moratorium imposed by the former governing coalition between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party. But those days are now over. "Since exploration started up here again, the razor wire is back," says Andreas Graf von Bernstorff, as he drives his Land Rover along the perimeter of what signs still designate a "mine." The forest he owns is to the right, and the site of the planned repository to the left. It looks like the perimeter of a large prison.

"I don't believe that the permanent repository will ever materialize," Bernstorff adds, noting that there was too much deception on the part of politicians and the nuclear lobby, which lost its credibility as a result. The majority of citizens in the Lüchow-Dannenberg administrative district are decidedly against the project, he says.

Bernstorff is one of the largest landowners in the area. He is conservative and a former member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but the finagling over the repository has turned him into a bitter adversary of the nuclear lobby.

It all began with a mysterious forest fire in 1975. After that, nuclear energy  officials offered to buy 600 hectares (1,320 acres) of his land for roughly 30 million deutsche marks, or about 10 times its market value at the time.

Bernstorff hesitated. He is a member of the northern German aristocracy, and his family has owned the estate since 1694. He sees himself as a link in a long chain, and he says that some things are more important than money, such as leaving land to your heirs in better condition than you found it in.

Ernst Albrecht, the state's governor at the time, met with the blue-blooded skeptic and jovially counselled him to sell, adding that local residents would quickly get used to the idea, just as people have gotten used to other nuclear projects. Resistance to such projects, Albrecht told Bernstorff, tended to only last about two years.

"As it turns out," Bernstorff says, "people here didn't get used to it." He drives past a brown brick building with a sign on it that reads: "Wendland Thermal Baths." The majority of local residents couldn't be bought off, not even with a luxury swimming pool.

The plan espoused by politicians and industry representatives envisioned the following: They would take this underdeveloped, sparsely populated district near the East German border, and if people proved to be uncooperative, they would use money to sweeten the deal in the form of benefits like a new fire truck, a new wing for the local hospital and a new community center. The plan was to inject a total of 500 million deutsche mark into the region. Nevertheless, in 1991, the CDU -- which supported the project -- lost its absolute majority in the district council.

Money alone wasn't enough to create trust, and supposedly representative democratic bodies -- such as the "Gorleben Commission" -- failed to convince most citizens that they were being taken seriously. Bernstorff, who was a member of the commission, says that objections and concerns about earthquakes, the risk of explosions, flooding and the porous layer of clay surrounding the salt dome didn't stand much of a chance. The attitude, says Bernstorff, was simple: "What doesn't fit will be made to fit."

Responsibility and Jobs

It is late afternoon in Östhammar, as Edelsvärd walks along the quite main street lined with wooden houses painted red and yellow. He doesn't run into a single person on his walk. An authoritarian process like the one that took place in Gorleben wouldn't stand a chance in Sweden, Edelsvärd says. Instead, the pros and cons of a permanent repository were discussed openly in Östhammar.

It smells like wood in the kindergarten, which is in a yellow building on a small knoll. The children are pulling toy diggers across the freshly scrubbed floor. Blue-and-green toy butterflies hang from the ceiling, and there is a miniature farm in a corner. The room exudes a feeling of security and comfort in a picture-perfect Swedish village.

One of the mothers in the room says that she has no objections to the permanent repository even though she voted for the Greens in the last election. "The stuff has to go somewhere," she says, adding that people who use energy should also take responsibility for the consequences. "We can't just send this toxic material to Africa."

Nuclear Waste Controllable and Not Utterly Objectionable

Another mother says: "The repository creates jobs, and safety is the top priority." She feels well informed by the town council and SKB.

It was a woman who pushed to sell the idea to people in Sweden that the highly toxic nuclear waste could be something controllable and not utterly objectionable.

Her name is Saida Laârouchi Engström, the second-in-command at SKB. She has a small corner office on the 8th floor of the company's headquarters. The sparse interior includes two pink orchids and a gray love seat. The room is deliberately modest -- as opposed to the sort of flashy, arrogant interior one might expect from the nuclear lobby.

Laârouchi Engström was born in Casablanca, studied engineering in Paris and came to Stockholm 30 years ago after falling in love with a Swede. She says that it took the company decades to get Östhammar's citizens to approve the plan for the permanent repository.

"When SKB began studying potential sites in the late '80s," she says, "we were not welcomed anywhere. No one wanted to talk to us." She remembers prime-time television appearances with screaming mothers and crying children. For the locals, nuclear power did not signify electricity. Instead, it conjured up images of Nagasaki and, later, Chernobyl.

'We Can't Force Ourselves on a Community'

Laârouchi Engström and a few other SKB employees decided that these perceptions had to be changed. "We can't force ourselves on a community," she says.

A dialogue had to be established, and Laârouchi Engström believed there were two conditions that needed to be met to achieve that: First, a community had to have the right geological conditions to be considered at all. Second, the community had to cooperate with SKB of its own accord.

Laârouchi Engström says that the company started focusing on Östhammar after determining that it was the most suitable of the eight sites it had tested. The bedrock beneath the town was 1.5 billion years old, making it among the oldest in Sweden. What's more, it was earthquake-proof, mostly dry and completely solid.

The plan calls for the nuclear waste to be stored in massive iron cylinders with hollow spaces for the fuel elements. The cylinders will be encased in a layer of copper five centimeters (2 inches) thick before being lowered into individual drilled holes that will then be filled with bentonite. The system is designed so that the cylinders can be retrieved, if necessary.

But this is just the proposal. If Östhammar's residents have doubts about the method, it will not be used, and other options will have to be examined.

"The community must have the option to bow out for a long time to come," Laârouchi Engström says. "Even if it has already said yes, it should be able to say at a later date: 'No, we don't want to continue with the project.'" Additional independent assessments will be prepared for at least three more years, and then the town of Östhammar will be polled once again to determine if it truly wants the permanent repository.

Not Always an Easy Sell

It is a costly process, paid for by every electricity customer in Sweden. For every kilowatt hour of electricity used, one öre (1/100th of a Swedish krona) is deposited into a fund for permanent waste storage. The government administers the fund and disburses the money to environmental organizations and disposal companies like SKB.

The plan calls for waste that will remain radioactive for at least the next 100,000 years to be deposited at the site over the next 40 years. This is no easy task, Laârouchi Engström says, and that's something the community has to be made aware of. After all, her company isn't coming to town to open a three-star restaurant. "You have to be honest," she says, "and lay all difficulties on the table."

It's important not to talk to citizens like a nuclear engineer, she adds, but like a person. It's important not to lecture them from a podium in a municipal building, she continues, but in their homes over coffee and cake and in places where people don't feel intimidated or afraid to ask potentially embarrassing questions. "The community determines how quickly we move forward," Laârouchi Engström says. "We don't."

In the late 1990s, 67 percent of the residents of a town called Tierp favored exploration to determine whether their region was suitable for a permanent repository. There were tests and discussions and, after three years, the town's residents ultimately decided there were more cons than pros. According to Laârouchi Engström, her company closed its offices in Tierp and left town a week later.

Laârouchi Engström says that only an open, transparent procedure, with all of its consequences laid bare, creates one of the most important raw materials: trust.

It all sounds pleasant and reasonable enough, but can she be believed? A woman working as a top executive for a company owned by Swedish nuclear power plant operators and the energy giants Vattenfall and E.on? A woman whose main job is to finally find a place -- after 30 years of searching -- where the toxic waste can be buried? A woman who needs consensus and is a brilliant speaker?

About-Turn on Nuclear Energy

The man whose most important job is to make sure that he's not being deceived by Laârouchi Engström and her company is Jacob Spangenberg, the mayor of Östhammar.

Spangenberg, a tall, angular man with large sideburns, strolls through the Östhammar town hall. He has been in office for five years, and he is a member of the Center Party, a centrist group that reflects the spectrum of Swedish public opinion on the subject of nuclear power.

After opposing nuclear energy in the 1980s, Spangenberg's party now sees it as something reasonable. Two years ago, together with the Moderate Party, it voted to end a previous phase-out policy.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, this basic attitude toward nuclear energy hasn't changed much, not even at Östhammar's town hall. Sounding almost triumphant, Spangenberg says that he has not received "a single e-mail" or any "worried phone calls" because of Japan.

He interprets the lack of opposition as a validation of his work. In his view, the citizens of Östhammar believe that their mayor has everything under control -- and that Östhammar is not Japan.

Most of the people in his town have no problem with nuclear energy, Spangenberg says. For Germans, on the other hand, he says it would be inconceivable for someone to voluntarily bring a permanent repository into his or her own backyard. To Germans, he adds with a laugh, these people are nothing but "duuuuummäääään Schweden" ("stupid Swedes"). Though he speaks very little German, he has heard this expression often enough in recent weeks to put it to memory.

Spangenberg believes that building consensus is part of Swedish tradition. He says that Swedes believe the government is the right body to evaluate and communicate the pros and cons of a problem. "At 52 percent, people pay a very high tax rate here," Spangenberg explains. "In return, they take us up on our promises and expect quite a lot from us."

There are many opponents of nuclear energy -- particularly in other countries -- who accuse Östhammar's residents of being open to bribery and of charging a high price for accepting nuclear waste -- a price paid in cash, lump-sum payments and infrastructure improvements.

Spangenberg is familiar with these suspicions. He smiles uneasily -- the kind of forced, patient smile that people in his position sometimes need.

Creating Jobs in Östhammar

The biggest investment, Spangenberg says, is the permanent repository. The construction work will create 500-600 jobs for about 10 years and, after the site has been filled in, there will another 250 jobs for the next 40 years. But, Spangenberg explains, he and the citizens of Östhammar primarily see the repository as an investment in the future of a relatively underdeveloped stretch of the Swedish coast. If a few restaurants, hotels and a training facility for technicians materialized in the process, what mayor could turn these things down?

Still, Spangenberg believes that the only thing that makes all of this work is that the community feels it can trust SKB. "If the scientists ultimately fail to convince us with their technology," Spangenberg insists, "we will definitely not give them the go-ahead for construction," Spangenberg insists. And he adds that, to make sure the pressure is kept up on SKB, the town has hired four additional employees who are soley responsible for addressing safety issues.

The mayor wields a lot of leverage, and he is determined to at least create the impression that he is using it. But he is aware that his leverage also has to control a safety process that applies for the next 100,000 years -- that is, for the next 3,000 generations.

It seems presumptuous for anyone to claim to be able to calculate what will be happening in the granite bedrock off the coast in 100,000 years. Geologists says there might be a cold period in 100,000 years, and that a layer of ice three kilometers thick might cover the entire country. The containers would have to remain sealed even after that.

Lasting Impressions

The glaciers of a new ice age would also reach Gorleben.

On a spring afternoon in Gorleben, Bernstorff is sitting in the forestry office on his family estate. A map on the table next to him shows the Gorleben salt dome.

Bernstorff taps his finger on the unexplored part of the salt dome he drove past this morning in his Land Rover. Twenty years ago, the federal government asked Bernstorff for permission to conduct underground explorations of the site. He turned them down.

This particular section of the salt dome is considered the best and most stable part of the formation. And it just might be a place where a suitable permanent repository for nuclear waste could be found in Germany.

"Exploration in Gorleben over the last 30 years has had little to do with democracy," Bernstorff says. Aside from the men who turned up there in the late 1970s, drove around in sleek, silver buses and touted the blessings of nuclear energy, no official has ever taken the trouble to hold a reasonable conversation with people in the region on the subject of permanent repositories.

This omission created the impression that officials were finagling, that the nuclear lobby was authoritarian and that the police force was looking out for itself.

Bernstorff takes a deep breath and looks out the window at the shimmering, pale green colors of spring in Gorleben. He says that the waste gradually has to be removed from the earth's surface. And he adds that one castor container alone contains 100 times the radioactivity of the entire Asse storage site .

Re-establishing Trust

While a community in eastern Sweden believes that it is joining the modern age by fighting for a permanent repository, the majority of Germans in eastern Lower Saxony have been fighting against such a repository for decades. In reaction to the threat, local residents are using wind power, solar energy and biogas to supply the entire administrative district with alternative energy.

Perhaps they are indeed more courageous, more creative and more 21st-century than the people of Östhammar. But the fact remains that the most hazardous waste of the 20th century must be disposed of and that the section of the salt dome on Bernstorff's land could very well be the best place to do this in Germany.

It's all a matter of trust, that critical raw material, of how it was gambled away and how it could be re-established.

Bernstorff sighs.

What is needed, he says, is a credible, transparent exploration process, one that truly investigates whether there might actually be better options and locations.

And what if the outcome of that process still points to Gorleben?

Bernstorff sighs again. In that case, he says, one could consider cooperating.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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