Sweden - Plutonium Investigation n°14/15

Plutonium Proliferation and Non-Proliferation

    Contrary to popular perception, the Swedish nuclear program started - as in the nuclear weapons powers - with a military nuclear weapons program, just after the second world war. Although an apparently civil Swedish atomic energy company (AB Atomenergi) was created in 1947, it was the creation of the weapons research and development effort in 1949 that drove the program forward. Because of the national security implications of the military program, Sweden decided to make its nuclear materials supplies independent of foreign suppliers, and so a uranium mine was opened at Ranstad, near the town of Skövde in central southern Sweden.

   The military origins are now publicly known in Sweden; indeed SKI provides details on its web site. But it was a shock to many when a technical paper was published in the journal "Ny Teknik" (New Techology) on 25 April 1985 setting out in complex detail the inside history of the military program. Its author, Christer Larsson, caused nearly as great an upset in the Swedish establishment as did the Chernobyl accident that happened exactly a year later. The then Swedish prime minister, Olaf Palme, ordered a Government investigation into the revelations, which was a little curious as in 1958 he had been the young secretary of the secret committee that decided that the research into developing the Swedish atom bomb, started in earnest in 1953, should continue.

   A research reactor, R1, was started on 13 July 1954 in Stockholm; this was followed by another reactor, R2 with a capacity of 50 MW being developed at the research center at Studsvik, south of Stockholm.

    Research was continued by AB Atomenergi - later re-named Studsvik Energiteknik AB - between 1960 to 1972, even though the Swedish Parliament (Riksdag) took a definitive political decision in 1968 not to pursue the weapons work, once the international nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) had been negotiated at the United Nations. Military experiments involving 10 underground ‘implosion tests' using around 10 grams of plutonium were conducted up to 1972 in the Ursvik region on the Baltic coast.

     The centerpiece of the program however was the 65 MW Āgesta heavy water reactor, built some 45 meters underground in a Stockholm suburb. Named R3, it was completed in 1958, and producing plutonium and generating district heat as a by product, but which also provided a public rationale for the plant. The R3 was designed to generate about 20-23 kg of plutonium a year. According to SKI it has generated only 24.4 kg plutonium of which 2.8 kg is stored in Studsvik and the rest is under Euratom safeguards in Mol in Belgium. In 1957 opinion polls demonstrate popular support for Swedish nuclear weapons, but this began to wane by 1959. Even so R3 was used for a decade to support the weapons program, even the United States privately made clear it was concerned about Sweden's attempts to do it alone in weapons development. There is approximately 49 kg of plutonium-contaminated waste from R3 in the CLAB store.

    Professor Hannés Alfén, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who had helped design R3, was amongst its first and most prominent critics on safety grounds. He was influential in pressing for its closure which came in 1974, although it was not decommissioned, but de facto kept in mothballs.

    It is thought probable that radioactive wastes from the military research reactors, including R1 -called Baptise- was dumped in the Baltic from 1959, although this was halted when international agreements prohibiting the sea disposal of solid radioactive wastes were completed in 1983.

   Today the Swedish military nuclear program is moribund, as Sweden has taken a global lead in opposing nuclear weapons. Thus amongst SKI's primary tasks listed in its mission statement are: "Ensuring that the Swedish government, in co-operation with the competent international safeguards agencies, is provided with adequate information on and control over nuclear substances and nuclear technology which are held, used and traded and which come under Swedish jurisdiction. This must be done to ensure that such substances or technology will not be used in any way contrary to Swedish legislation and Sweden's international obligations in the area of non-proliferation."

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