Former Nuclear Power Plant Turned Into Museum – Remembering Dystopia or Utopia?

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One of the two reactor halls at Barsebäck.

Photo courtesy of Pierre Mens

One of the two reactor halls at Barsebäck.

BARSEBÄCK, Sweden – One of the most beautiful characteristics of Southern Sweden are the plain fields that roll in from the Eastern horizon and then halt at the Öresund strait, where a strip of sea separates Sweden from Denmark. The Danish capital of Copenhagen lays only 20 km away from the strait, and if the weather is clear, the city can be viewed from a town called Barsebäck on the Swedish shore. Someone on the Danish side of the Öresund, looking towards Barsebäck, would see a 205 ha nuclear power plant.

Barsebäck nuclear power plant holds two reactors, which were dismantled in 1999 and 2005 respectively. This decision was predominantly a result of pressures from nuclear-free Denmark, which did not like having the plant so close to its capital. When the Swedish power plant was still active, it used to employ several hundreds of employees, and temperatures inside could range between 30 to 40 degrees Celsius because of the waste heat from the reactors. Now the plants are cold, but they are not dead. Every year, hundreds of new nuclear power workers get their training in Barsebäck, and there is even a popular bed and breakfast run on the property. The power plant further extends its new hospitality by inviting members from the public to enter the reactors, and probably for the first time, see the inside of one. Now, during the summer, they even barbecue hot dogs on Wednesday nights, and everyone is welcome.

Maria Taranger, Communications Officer at Barsebäck nuclear power plant, explains that she has visited other dismantled power plants in Europe such as Trawsfynydd in Wales, but that these are exhibitions held at information centres, and nowhere else has she heard of visitors exploring the actual reactors. The tour at Barsebäck goes through both of the two reactors, and visitors are first led onto a viewing balcony in the reactor room, where the process of nuclear power is explained to them. The tour continues into the turbine hall and then down to the basement where the condenser used to operate. Barsebäck receives all sorts of visitors: artists, thespians, school classes and international ambassadors and most importantly, ordinary citizens. There are no health related risks with the tour: “It’s like walking around any kind of concrete building, you need to wear a helmet, shoe covers and an overcoat. The visitors are not exposed to any background radiation higher than normal levels,” Maria explains.

The Barsebäck nuclear power plant as seen from the Öresund strait.

Photo courtesy of Pierre Mens

The Barsebäck nuclear power plant as seen from the Öresund strait.

Barsebäck nuclear power plant is a place of cultural heritage, still alive in the memories of many Swedes and Danes. It was the site of many anti-nuclear protests in the late 70’s, some that could draw over 10 000 people, and these opinions escalated into the public referendum held in 1980 on the future of nuclear power in Sweden. The referendum offered three alternatives and they were all in favour of closing the plants down, the difference laid in how soon.  Robert Wahlström, employed at Barsebäck since decades, criticizes the way the future of nuclear power was decided, “There were only three no-alternatives. That was what we reacted the most to; it was not really a public referendum. It came, was carried out and we got a no.”

Swedish political nuclear power climate has however changed since then, and now only 3 out of 8 parties in the government want to dismantle the country’s nuclear power. Support for nuclear power has grown remarkably in Sweden, and in 2010 the government decided to allow for new power plants to be built in the country. The future of the 3 remaining Swedish power plants remains uncertain; will they become dismantled in the 2020’s, or will a new generation of Swedish nuclear power be created?

The only plant whose future is certain is Barsebäck. The Nuclear Power Plant Act requires it to be demolished after its shutdown, although it is still not certain when. The regional museum of Kristianstad wrote a report on the importance of Barsebäck in the history of Swedish industry, and called it a cultural landmark. They write, “The plant symbolises the nuclear power debate, one of the most important societal issues of our time. It reminds us both of the prerequisites for the development of Swedish welfare, that is access to energy, and of the resistance to nuclear power and countless of protests that were carried out here.”

If support for nuclear power continues to grow in the country, will there be any protests against the demolition of Barsebäck? Maria tries to imagine the future, “There are no support groups yet, but perhaps they will show up in the future, as the end comes closer.”

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