Atomic Swing was one of the greatest Swedish rock band of the 90’s. It’s also an appropriate title for a post about the constant oscillations that have historically characterized Swedish approach to nuclear power.

Riffing on the pop culture references, why not start with a Madonna video and work our way back. Nothing really matters from 1999 is a decent song made great by a visually intriguing music video. That video was directed by Stakka Bo and largely shot in what used to be Sweden’s first nuclear reactor, known as R1. (Incidentally, the same director made the HBO series Chernobyl two decades later)

Located 35 metres under ground, smack in the middle of the KTH campus, R1 was never meant to produce energy. Officially it was built for research purposes, but really it was a central piece of this proud nation’s secret effort to build its own atomic bomb.

A bit of back story: It’s now considered outrageously unfair that Swedish-Austrian, and Jewish, physicist Lise Meitner didn’t get to share the 1944 Nobel prize for the discovery of fission, which was awarded exclusively to the German scientist Otto Hahn. Meitner had come to Sweden as a refugee, and it was here that she thought up the breakthrough theories that made sense of Hahn’s lab experiments.

The Americans tried recruiting Meitner to the Manhattan project, but she decided to instead join the Swedish equivalent, which was headed by the so called Atom committee (wherein she was joined, among others, by Swedish Nobel laureate Hannes Alvfén, who later in life became an ardent critic of all-things-nuclear).

When it came to atomic bombs back in the 40’s, you could pick from two flavors: Uranium or Plutonium*. In 1948, the RnD branch of the Swedish armed forces was tasked with building a Plutonium based bomb.

*It was a Uranium based bomb that flattened Hiroshima, while it was a Plutonium bomb that obliterated Nagasaki.

The tricky thing with Plutonium is that it doesn’t exist in nature, you have to produce it in a nuclear reactor using Uranium as fuel. Hence a deal was struck with France, which gracefully allowed Sweden to “borrow” three metric tons worth of Uranium (this was before people had fully understood the thing with nuclear fuel vs. nuclear waste).

Six years after the lets’-build-a-bomb-order (and twelve years after Enrique Fermi’s first nuclear reactor went live in Chicago), the R1 was inaugurated.

It was a big deal. The only other free-world country outside of the US, the UK and France that could boast with the same achievement, was Belgium. But then Belgium hadn’t built its own nuclear reactor, it had been assisted by the Americans as a token of appreciation for the fact that Belgium had provided the Manhattan project with Uranium, mined in what was then the Belgian Congo.

So yeah, it was a big deal, and for a while the whole nuclear thing got mixed up with the general optimism of Folkhemsbygget; one of those Swedish words that doesn’t really lend itself to a translation. Think of it as a sort of secular replacement for protestantism, which for a few post-war decades had most Swedes think they were God’s chosen people.

In this atmosphere, it was taken for granted that every city should have its own nuclear power plant and all kinds of synergetic use cases were dreamt up. For example, people seriously entertained ideas of using radiation in the process of canning food to prolong shelf life.

During a substantial period of time *half* of all government funded RnD went to the nuclear sector and there seemed to have been no awareness whatsoever of risks. ‘The engineers’ were trusted blindly and the scheme to build a large number of nuclear plants right inside of Stockholm seemed perfectly sane.

A 1957 incident in Sellafield—at a plutonium-producing reactor just like the R1—caused the first disruption to the unhinged enthusiasm. The following decade’s disasters at Three Mile Island and in Chernobyl turned the tides. All-things-nuclear fell out of fashion, and perhaps rightly so. The secret program to build Swedish atomic bombs, was secretly shut down in 1966.

Then a referendum was held in 1980 which resulted in a decision to dismantle all Swedish nuclear reactors no later than 2010. As that year finally arrived, the Swedish parlament voted instead to initiate the construction of new reactors meant to replace the existing ones.

During the time since then, there has been a lot of back and forth. The Fukushima disaster was obviously a harsh reminder of the risks involved in nuclear power production, but then the war in Ukraine also highlighted the problems with depending on Russian gas.

With the current regime—a somewhat fragile government on a perpetual balancing act between the red block and the brown party of the Swedish parlament—the pendulum has swung back towards renewed enthusiasm for nuclear power.

This time however, there seem to be a misalignment between policy makers and scientists in terms of strategic vision. Where politicians look to traditional fission based nuclear power, the scientific community seem to place its bets on fusion, which if achieved would mean clean and practically limitless energy production, opening up whole new opportunities for fighting climate change.

It’s both interesting and somewhat frustrating to think what leverage would be possible if we managed to join forces to make real on that promise.

Half a century ago the corporation AB Atomenergi was instrumental in securing sufficient funding for the Swedish nuclear program. It was a strange beast, co-owned by the state and private share-holders. Such a freak of economic nature seem unthinkable today, but back then the goal—to establish Sweden as a nuclear power—was so all-important that anything became possible. The ends justified the means, as Machiavelli once quipped.

We could use a pinch of that can-do-attitude today.


This post was inspired by Per Högselius’ and and Leif Handberg’s lectures at the course Stockholm’s History of Technology.  Other entries also inspired by the same course include Making Belief : A Brief History of World Expos, What We Need Libraries ForThings I Didn’t Know About KTH and The Battle of the Elms and the End of Swedish Technocracy.