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A Swedish State company with nuclear safety problems

Vattenfall is the largest generator of heat in Europe and the fifth largest generator of electricity in the EU. [1] The Company has operations mainly in three different markets, Germany, Poland and the Nordic countries. The Group’s parent company, Vattenfall AB, is wholly owned by the Swedish State. It owns 7 nuclear reactors in Sweden, and has a share of three reactors in Germany. Unexpectedly for a Swedish State company, after a spate of mishaps confidence in its ability to operate reactors safely is rapidly disappearing.

From hydro-power to fission-power

The Company began as a hydro-electricity company in Sweden in the Nineteenth Century. By the middle of the 1970s, Vattenfall's first two reactors in Ringhals on the west coast of Sweden began operating. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the USA led to a referendum on nuclear power in Sweden. This resulted in the decision to complete those reactors that were under construction, providing Sweden with twelve reactors, seven owned by Vattenfall. [2] Two reactors at Barseback are now closed, but despite the nuclear phase-out decision, the Government is allowing nuclear operators to uprate the remaining reactors, thus replacing most of Barseback’s output. The remaining reactors will probably not close until they have operated for 40 years (ie. between 2012 and 2025). [3]

International conglomerate

With deregulation of the German electricity market in 1998, the country’s largest power conglomerates, RWE Group and Eon, were forced to give up their assets in the former East Germany to prevent them dominating the German power market. Vattenfall acquired a majority of these company holdings, in part via HEW (a public utility company from Hamburg), which Vattenfall already partly owned. It incorporated HEW, VEAG and LAUBAG in August 2002 and Bewag (a public utility company from Berlin) in January 2003, to form Vattenfall Europe within the Swedish Vattenfall Group. [4] At about the same time, Vattenfall also became a major player in Poland by acquiring Warsaw's electricity and district heating company, EW, and Poland's largest electricity supplier, GZE. Today, the Group has about 33,000 employees delivering electricity and heat to about 6 million customers in Northern Europe.


Vattenfall is Germany’s third largest electricity producer, after Eon and RWE Group. 87% of its electricity is derived from fossil fuels – the Company claims it has some of the world’s cleanest and up-to-date lignite fired plant – the rest is derived from nuclear power and hydro power. Vattenfall is also Germany’s largest district heating provider. Despite its claims about its lignite plants, four of them appear on the WWF list of the 30 dirtiest climate polluting plant in Europe; Janschwalde (5th); Boxberg (11th); Schwarze Pumpe (16th); Lippendorf (19th). [5]

However, in 2005 the Swedish government ordered the state-owned company to invest profits from its German coal power operations into Swedish renewable energy projects. Sweden lags behind other European countries and generates only 50GWh from wind energy. In addition, Swedish coalition parties agreed directives prohibiting Vattenfall from building or buying new coal or nuclear plant. The decision followed failed attempts by Vattenfall to lobby the European Commission and EU parliament for more nuclear power. Sweden's trade minister, Sven-Eric Soder, described the companies' approaches as 'entirely inappropriate'. [6] Nevertheless, Vattenfall has started constructed a new lignite-fired plant with carbon capture and storage at Schwarze Pumpe in Germany. [7]

Nordic Countries

Vattenfall generates roughly 20 per cent of the electricity consumed in the Nordic countries. It also has considerable heat generation operations, largely based on biofuel, and sells district heating and so-called thermal heat. In the Nordic countries its operations are based on hydropower, nuclear power, thermal power and windpower. In Denmark, for example, Vattenfall controls approximately 24 per cent of the Danish power generation capacity - consisting of thermal capacity and wind power


Vattenfall generates, distributes and sells heat and electricity in Poland. With a total market share of 7 per cent, Vattenfall is the largest foreign investor in the Polish energy market. Generation takes place in combined heat and power plants located in Warsaw. Vattenfall is the largest heating producer in Poland and has a market share of 27 per cent in heat co-generated with electricity. The Company has 3 per cent of the total electricity market, making it the seventh largest electricity generator in Poland.

Nuclear Operator

Vattenfall says it sees nuclear power as a generally good choice for electricity production, because of low carbon dioxide emissions. It accepts that in the two countries where it operates nuclear plants, Sweden and Germany, the political decisions have been made to phase out nuclear power.

In Sweden, Vattenfall owns the Forsmark facility, which is home to three Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs), and the Ringhals facility, which houses two Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) and two BWRs. Ringhals, on the west coast of Sweden, is the biggest nuclear facility in Scandinavia, producing around 28 TWh annually, almost 20 per cent of Sweden’s total electricity consumption. Sweden’s third nuclear facility at Oskarshamn, which houses three BWRs, is owned by OKG – a company which is 54.5% owned by Eon and 45.5% is owned by the Finnish company, Fortum.

In Germany, Vattenfall has a share in reactors at Brunsbuttel (66.7%), Brokdorf (20%) and Krummel (50%).

UK lobbying firm

Safety Questioned

The Brunsbüttel reactor has a history of technical safety problems and has been shut down several times. Most recently, on 14 December 2001, an explosion occurred inside the containment vessel. The consequences could have been much more serious if the explosion had taken place closer to the reactor vessel. The Ministry of Finance and Energy of the State of Schleswig-Holstein urged the operators to close the reactor down when they were informed three days later, but the operators refused. Only after weeks of discussion and the threat of formal action did the operators reduce the reactor’s power output on 18th February 2002, so that inspections could be carried out. The inspections discovered that around 2 to 3 metres of pipe had completely disintegrated. [11]

The refusal of the operator to close the reactor when first asked to do so, called into question their competence. Although Vattenfall had not completed its German acquisitions until January 2003, it already partly owned the Brunsbuttel owners - Hamburgischen Elektrizitätswerken (HEW) - so was, at least partly, responsible. Brunsbuttel was closed for two years between 1978 and 1980 after an earlier serious accident. In July 1982 a 14-month pipe replacement programme began, but the steel used was a bad choice, and so the reactor had to be closed again for almost three years up to June 1995 – the longest shutdown ever of a German reactor.

In March 2007 Vattenfall applied for a two-year life extension for Brunsbuttel beyond its scheduled closure in 2009. [12]

Meltdown avoided by pure luck

Vattenfall also runs the Forsmark nuclear power plant, 60 miles north of Stockholm. On 25th July 2006 the main power supply to the Forsmark-1 reactor was interrupted. Two of the four backup generators failed to start, but luckily two were sufficient to run part of the plant's cooling system. If they hadn’t started there could have been a catastrophic meltdown. [13] A former director of Forsmark commented that: "it was pure luck there wasn't a meltdown". For 20 minutes, workers were unable to obtain information about the condition of the reactor and were only able to respond after 21 minutes. [14] Two Forsmark reactors were shut down for two months for upgrades. Then in January 2007, the Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate said plant managers acted too slowly in cooling down one of the reactors after the incident, and asked prosecutors to investigate whether Vattenfall broke the law in its response to the malfunction. When the power supply failed, the reactor was kept warm until the next day. Under regulations, the reactor is supposed to be cooled down as soon as possible. Prosecutors now have to decide whether to press charges. [15]

An internal report written by Forsmark technicians released in January 2007, claimed the nuclear power plant failed to meet standard safety requirements. The report said lax security has led to 'potentially fatal accidents'. It cited among other things a nitrogen gas leak, employees handling live electrical wires, falls in the workplace and employees sent home for failing sobriety tests. [16]

Then in February 2007, the troubled facility was reported to have been running one of its boiling-water reactors for seven months with deficient rubber seals to its outer walls. Reactor 1 had operated with rubber packing inside the reactor containment which had not been controlled in accordance with proper procedures. Two reactors were closed on February 2, 2007. The rubber packing had to be changed with the work estimated to take at least three weeks. Meanwhile, test results from Forsmark 2 showed that the rubber packing in the reactor containment is fully operable. Forsmark 2 was allowed to re-start operations. [17]

Ringhals 1 was also offline in February 2007 with cooling system issues and Ringhals 3 was out of operation after anomalous instrument readings were recorded. [18]

Safety inspectors called in

Following a meeting between the Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate and the Swedish nuclear industry, it was decided to ask the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to carry out an inspection at the Forsmark nuclear facility, as well as Sweden’s other nuclear plants. [19]

This, understandably, led to public concern in Sweden that this was tantamount to an admission that Vatenfall’s nuclear plants were not safe. Consequently later in February the Company was forced to reassure the public on safety. The Company said the aim of calling in the IAEA was to further tighten up on the safety culture at Forsmark and Ringhals. [20]

In the Swedish Parliament on February 28, 2007, Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren said that the nuclear industry would have to pay for any increases in supervision by the regulatory authorities to improve safety, and that the government would not consider any applications to uprate reactors at Forsmark while the plant remains under the special supervision of the Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate (SKI). SKI placed the plant under special supervision in September 2006. [21]

Vattenfall is a member of the European Atomic Forum (Foratom), and the World Nuclear Association.


  1. Vattenfall Electricity Market Report 2005
  2. Vatenfall website, accessed March, 2007.
  3. Nuclear Energy in Sweden, World Nuclear Association Information Paper, August 2006.
  4. Sovereign Publications website, accessed March, 2007.
  5. Dirty thirty: Europe’s most climate producing stations, October, 2005.
  6. Vattenfall’s coal plant profit to go into wind, Utility Week, 14 January, 2005.
  7. Vattenfall’s newsletter on the CO2-free power plant project, September, 2006.
  8. Nuclear power: A stable platform for electricity generation, Vattenfall website, acc 23 June 2012
  9. APPC Register Entry for 1 September 2010 to 30 November 2010, PRCA Public Affairs Register – 1 March 2010 to 31 May 2010, PRCA Public Affairs Register – Agencies - September to November 2011, APPC Register Entry for 1 Dec 2011 to 29 Feb 2012
  10. Register 1st September 2014 - 30th November 2014 APPC, accessed 23 February 2015
  11. Germany: Explosion in Brunsbuttel Reactor, NIRS & WISE Nuclear Monitor No564, 8 March, 2002.
  12. German nuclear reactor extension vetoed ENDS Europe DAILY 2277, 7 March, 2007.
  13. Sweden’s nuclear reactors stopped, BBC News, 3 August, 2006.
  14. A close call with catastrophe in Sweden?, Spiegel Online, 4 August, 2006.
  15. Sweden files nuclear plant complaint, abc money, 30 January, 2007.
  16. Sweden’s Forsmark nuclear plant fails safety standards – internal report, abc money, 30 January, 2007.
  17. Stephen McNamara, Vatenfall says Forsmark failed to follow important control routine, Energy Business Review 13 February, 2007. See also Swedish power company finds new flaws at nuclear plant, Monsters and Critics, 10 February, 2007.
  18. Stephen McNamara, More safety fears at Swedish nuclear plants, Energy Business Review, 7 February, 2007.
  19. Stephen McNamara, Forsmark requests UN nuclear power authority inspection Energy Business Review, 20 February, 2007.
  20. Stephen McNamara, Vatenfall vouches for nuclear power facilities’ safety despite call to UN Energy Business Review, 26 February, 2007.
  21. Swedish Nuclear Industry Faces Higher Taxes For Supervision, NucNet, 28 February, 2007.