In 2016 it became clear that Sweden’s nuclear power operations had been brought to their knees. Low electricity prices, in combination with the nuclear capacity tax and the requirement for further safety investments in independent core cooling meant that there was a risk that the country’s nuclear power plants would have to be shut down within just a few years.
But the energy agreement between the parliamentary parties presented at the beginning of July in 2016 changed the situation: the extra power tax of about 0.07 SEK per kilowatt hour was to be phased out.
"The energy agreement was a real turning point. The abolition of the power tax was essential for us to be able to make necessary investments in independent core cooling systems. After all, you can’t go to a company board and ask for money to invest if the figures don’t add up," says Mats Ladeborn, Head of Fleet Development, the department concerned with the future planning of nuclear power plants within Business Area Generation.
Decision on independent core cooling systems
Buoyed up by the new figures, Forsmark decided to invest in the new core cooling system in mid-July this year. A corresponding decision at Ringhals will be made on a commercial basis and is expected in 2017.
"I think that the politicians themselves understood how bad things were with the finances of the nuclear power industry and realised the importance of keeping it while we build up a completely renewable energy system. In the interim, nuclear power is an important weather-independent source of energy that doesn’t contribute to further climate change," says Ladeborn.
The plan is now to run nuclear power plants for at least 60 years in total, i.e. some way into the 2040s, provided that it is profitable.
"We know that more renewables will enter the system. At the same time, there is already an electricity surplus in Sweden. So it’s important for us that new renewable production is introduced in the power system much further ahead. This is also something that the Swedish Energy Agency states in its report about how the future subsidiary system for renewable energy in Sweden should be designed," he says.
Big investments made
Big investments have been made in nuclear power plants in recent years, so the reactors can, in many ways, be considered to be safer and more efficient than when they were new. The independent core-cooling system should be ready by 2021.
In future, efforts will be concentrated on cutting costs instead: in 2021, the target is that production costs should be down to 0.19 SEK per kWh. Today, each kWh costs a little over 0.20 SEK to produce, and at times the electricity price is below production cost.
Savings are to be made in all sectors – apart from in safety of course: administration, training, purchase of materials and services and so on. Also, work is ongoing to boost the efficiency of the organisations at Ringhals and Forsmark. The RingFors programme aims to share resources and experience and thus reduce costs. In addition, cooperation with Vattenfall’s hydro power business is to be increased, for example as regards control equipment, transformers and other equipment.
"Official forecasts indicate an electricity trading price of a little over 0.20 SEK in future. If we get our costs down to the target 0.19 SEK, we can be competitive," says Ladeborn.
At the same time, four reactors are to be decommissioned. In Germany, Krümmel and Brunsbüttel have already been taken out of service. In Sweden, Vattenfall decided in April 2015 to close Ringhals 1 and 2 down at the latest by 2020 and 2019 respectively instead of 2025. This was mainly because of the poor profitability due to high costs and low prices. Investments could not be justified, as the reactors were in any case to be shut down a few years later.
The aim is to start dismantling the Ringhals reactors as soon as is feasible, i.e. some years into the 2020s. Low and medium-level radioactive demolition materials will be stored in the final repository in Forsmark.
The dismantling of the German reactors will probably take longer than in Sweden, partly due to the country’s massive nuclear opposition which makes it difficult to deposit even non-radioactive materials from nuclear operations.
The dismantling of nuclear power plants calls for meticulous precision and planning, but that’s nothing unique. Quite a few plants have already been dismantled in Europe.
"We are now building up an appropriate organisation, Business Unit Nuclear Decommissioning, with the aim of being leaders in decommissioning nuclear power plants in a safe and efficient way," explains Ladeborn.
An obvious investment
Sweden’s nuclear power plants are fully modernised, and that also applies to the two that are now being shut down. Among other things, Ringhals 2 has recently been equipped with new turbines and transformers.
"In retrospect we can ask whether it was right to make these investments, but when the decision was taken, it was correct on the basis of our knowledge at the time and how we saw market developments. But it’s obvious that it’s hardly optimal to fit new equipment if the plant is to be shut down," says Ladeborn.
Is it then really right to invest in independent core cooling for the other reactors?
"Our alternatives are to shut down in 2020 or continue operation up to 2040 and beyond. That’s a huge difference in earning capacity compared with the investments in Ringhals 1 and 2 where the planned operating period was some ten years. For the other reactors we look at 30 years of operation, and when the nuclear capacity tax is gone, and with the price development we see ahead of us, I see this as a completely obvious decision. But the final say is up to the boards of Ringhals and Vattenfall," Ladeborn concludes.
Same challenge, different solutions
After Fukushima, stress tests were carried out on all nuclear power plants in the EU. This led to further measures to strengthen reactor safety being introduced in the member states. A common factor is greater capacity to withstand natural catastrophes as well as measures to prevent the emission of radioactive substances. But the design of the measures differs in the various countries.
In France, the country which operates the largest number of nuclear reactors in Europe, the focus was mainly on mobile equipment, such as diesel generators and tank trucks. Shared storage facilities for sandbags and trucks were also built to allow barriers against flooding to be put in place quickly.
In Finland, special cooling water pumps have been installed: they are driven by steam from the plant’s own processes.
Germany and Switzerland went furthest and decided to shut down their entire nuclear power programmes, in the German case by 2022. In addition, eight reactors, that were temporarily out of service, were shut down immediately. Two of these were Vattenfall’s: Krümmel and Brunsbüttel in northern Germany.
Swedish nuclear reactors must now be equipped with independent core cooling in parallel to the existing regular safety and backup power systems. Core cooling is a requirement of SSM, the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, and must be operational by 1 January 2021 for a reactor to continue being used.
Vattenfall will invest a total of some SEK 2 billion in independent core cooling for five of its reactors. The two oldest ones, Ringhals 1 and 2, will be shut down at the latest by 2020 and 2019 respectively.
The project has been started in Forsmark where, for instance, the groundwork for the new buildings is underway. The work at Ringhals is scheduled to start about a year later