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Swedes get a buzz visiting nuclear plants

It’s not everyone’s dream destination, but in Sweden thousands of visitors each year head to remote coastland to view the nation’s nuclear power plants.

At Forsmark, one of the country’s three nuclear plants that each receive about 15 000 visitors a year, tourists wear protective clothing and carry dosimeters, which monitor their radiation exposure.

If all goes well, the equipment records zero or fractional radiation — levels lower than those naturally present in the environment. As the tourists leave controlled areas, a robotic voice announces: ”You are clean.”

Nils Sundquist, who lives just south of Stockholm, is a regular visitor to Forsmark: ”I think we learn that nuclear is not so dangerous,” he told Reuters by telephone of his visits.

Of Sweden’s population of about nine million, almost three million have been to a Swedish nuclear plant — some on school trips, others as passing tourists — since they were first able to visit 35 years ago, said Torsten Bohl, communications director at state firm Vattenfall, Forsmark’s majority owner.

”They see it’s a large industrial complex, but nothing else — and the people who work there are ordinary, not greenish,” said Bohl.

Vattenfall says the visitors are still coming, even though the plant drew negative publicity in July 2006 after the worst safety incident in the history of nuclear power in Sweden.

On that occasion, a short-circuit forced an emergency shutdown, known as a ”scram” in the industry. No one was hurt and no radiation leaked out, but the nation’s reputation for safe nuclear generation was badly bruised.

Whatever entices visitors to Forsmark today, for Vattenfall it is a chance to reassure the public the plant is safe.

Extreme tourism

A referendum in Sweden in 1980 voted for nuclear power to be phased out. But over the past two years opinion polls by Synovate Temo, a leading Swedish polling institute, have consistently found 80% of the population is comfortable with its continued use.

One explanation may be nuclear power’s green credentials: no carbon dioxide is produced by nuclear generation. Another could be the realisation power supplies are tight and Sweden’s traditional industries — pulp, steel, paper — are energy intensive.

A third may be that so many Swedes have seen the plant in operation.

Apart from visiting Forsmark for himself, Sundquist has taken clients of the small company for which he works to see nuclear power being generated.

”They are wholesalers and electrical installers and they like to learn about nuclear and how we produce it,” he said.

For the visitors, there may also be the thrill of ”extreme tourism”.

Tourists armed with Geiger counters have for years been visiting the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident that took place at Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 26 1986.

For really dedicated nuclear watchers, Iran has said it is considering ways to open its nuclear sites to tourists to convince the world its atomic ambitions are purely peaceful.

‘Not as good as we thought’

Forsmark executives point out their workers helped alert the world to the Chernobyl disaster.

Former Forsmark boss Alf Lindfors remembers the day a worker went out for breakfast and was not allowed to re-enter the plant because radioactive material was detected on his shoes.

”The whole day we thought it was something from Forsmark,” said Lindfors. ”We thought people would run away, but we had to force them to leave. They wanted to help.”

It was almost a relief when they realised the radiation had not come from Forsmark but had blown in from Ukraine.

After Forsmark had its own scare in July last year, Vattenfall said it needed to tackle complacency.

Following intense scrutiny, staff are implementing 275 safety actions, a costly task representing hundreds of thousands of man-hours.

”We are better than we were before July 25, but we are not as good as we thought we were. We were up on a pedestal and we have fallen to the floor,” said Bjorn Johannson, a manager.

Swim

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency will visit the plant in February next year to check on progress.

Like the tourists, they will be taken up 54m above ground level to look down on the reactor, silent and shimmering like a sleeping monster in a pool of cooling water.

One of Sweden’s pro-nuclear politicians offered to swim next to the reactor to prove how safe it is. He was not allowed to, not because of the risk to him but because he would have contaminated water that has to be 100% pure.

After the visitors have seen the reactor, they will be taken down to the turbine where silence yields to extreme noise.

Forsmark is a boiling water reactor — as opposed to a pressurised water reactor — so the steam from the reactor directly powers the turbine. The advantage of this technology is there is no need for steam generators.

The disadvantage is that there is radiation in the air in the turbine room, so boiling water reactors are only allowed in remote areas, such as Sweden’s Baltic coast. — Reuters

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