How Sweden Almost Got The Bomb

R1: An experimental military facility turned into an experimental performance space …

From the Chernobyl tragedy to the Fukushima disaster - when many of us hear the word nuclear, we associate it with danger.  

So why would the Swedish government allow, or even lavishly fund, an experimental reactor right in the heart of its capital city?

According to scholar Leif Handberg it was to show Sweden could be serious about nuclear power, and to say "don't mess with us because we got the bomb.”  

This is in part because Sweden's nuclear policies at one stage also included nuclear weapons - despite the country being a neutral state today.

Leif, an associate professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm responsible for giving the reactor a new lease on life, said: “Today, we can question how can you build a nuclear reactor in the middle of the city but at the end of the 1940s it was not controversial at all - it was part of what was considered needed to do.”

Merely days after the US detonated two atomic bombs over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sweden embarked on creating nuclear weapons of its own.  

However, after 20 years of developing and acquiring the capabilities to produce its own nuclear arsenal, Sweden turned its back on the idea and became an advocate for global disarmament.  

The reactor became operational in 1954 - but has become of it today and is it still operational?

It was decommissioned in 1970 after Sweden signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) two years prior, putting a definitive end to the Swedish nuclear and nuclear weapons program.  

Lying 15 metres below the Royal Institute of Technology campus, the reactor lay undisturbed, almost forgotten apart from by students who were rumoured to have occasionally found their way down there on their way back from a night out.

Dormant and derelict, the reactor saw almost no visitors until the late 1990s when Leif had the idea to carry on the experimental legacy of the space by turning it into a performance art centre that merges the fields of art and science.

Since then, the space has more than made up for taking an almost 30-year break. The apocalyptic visual backdrop combined with otherworldly acoustics creates an ideal environment for hosting an array of experimental art from Kafkaesque theatre to laser shows and opera concerts.

R1, or as it is also known 'The Cathedral of Art and Science,' seamlessly combines both worlds, having welcomed at times, both Madonna and Stephen Hawking within its rocky cavern.

Some polls today suggest the Swedish population may be showing signs of growing support for nuclear power once again, but whether that will lead to nuclear expansion remains to be seen.

Leif Handberg, Associate Professor At the Royal Institute of Technology

Sweden Goes Nuclear 

After the Second World War, a newly formed Swedish National Defense Research Agency (Försvarets forskningsanstalt, FOA)  created a report on how the country might use the nuclear –  whether it be to power homes or make bombs.

In 1954, Swedish commander-in-chief Nils Swedlund advocated for Sweden to build its own of nuclear weapons, to prepare for the event of any foreign invasion or to act as a deterrent.

A year later, the FOA concluded that with access to plutonium Sweden could produce its own nuclear weapon.

A nuclear weapons program was created with a goal of producing 100 tactical nuclear weapons. At the same time, scientists across the country were researching how to optimise nuclear energy for the creation of power plants to fuel the county.

Today, nuclear energy is one of Sweden’s main sources of power – around 40 percent.

According to Leif, the work conducted at R1 seamlessly combined civilian and military research under the same roof: ‘The military experiments, they were on one side of the reactor and others on the other side of the reactor, but then they met in the coffee break and exchanged information.”

Reactor turned experimental art space

‘Nukes Are Not For Us’ Say The Swedes 

At the end of the 1960s, the world's two biggest superpowers had enough nuclear missiles to obliterate not only each other but most life on the planet. A scenario in which both sides face the prospect of complete annihilation under the nuclear concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD), or the threat of a full scale nuclear accident, started to shift public opinion away from nuclear expansion.

The two main players in power at the time –  the United States and the Soviet Union - later began to negotiate on a global agreement to limit the production of atomic arsenal. Their joined efforts culminated in The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (also called the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT).

The treaty separated the world’s countries into two groups - nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states. 

Sweden signed the treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state, thereby rescinding any rights to having nuclear weapons or obtaining them in the future.

The Country Goes To Vote

Following the Cuban Missile Crisis at the peak of the Cold War, the anti-nuclear movement gained more and more momentum with each passing year.

The year 1982 saw one of the biggest mass demonstrations in US history. A million people marched in New York to put an end to the spread of nuclear weapons.

Prior to that, protests across the US erupted after an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. In 1979, a partial meltdown of one of the reactors caused a significant radiation leak. It seemed at the time to many as if the risks of nuclear power were becoming impossible to ignore.

Anti-sentiment towards nuclear power swept the globe from the streets of the Big Apple to the seats of the Riksdag.

In 1980, Sweden took their concerns to the ballot box.

A referendum was organised to decide on what to do with the country’s many nuclear reactors. The Swedes were presented with three options. To put it simply, these options were:

  1. Turn them all down immediately.
  2. Turn them down, eventually before 2010, but with control.
  3. Keep them for now with a plan to phase them out eventually when relying on other sources of energy becomes an option.

The middle option gained the most votes. But as with most referendums, it wasn’t legally binding - 2010 has come and gone and Sweden still has 10 nuclear reactors running.

The voting results did, however, set the tone on how the country felt about nuclear energy at the time.

Reactor core

Dismantled, Decommissioned And Repurposed

According to Leif, after the referendum “nobody wanted a monument to nuclear research”.

In 1982, R1 was broken down into smaller pieces and its nuclear components are now in a long-term depository for low-radioactive waste in the north of the country.

The only thing that was left were the walls, every inch of which were pained into a grid. Each square, resembling an apocalyptic chessboard, was checked for radiation contamination.

Safe radiation threshold levels were obtained. The space passed the test and was released from regulatory control in 1985. Then, 13 years later, R1 had found another purpose.

The professor said: “We are now what is called decommissioned. Totally safe. We're free to do what we want. And we do.”

Organ used for performances

Was The Nuclear Weapons Program A Secret?

No. In fact, at the beginning in the 1950s Swedes were very proud of it the pioneering research that was done at R1. The exact details may have been a secret but the program itself was an aspect of national pride.

They even made postcards that pictured the reactor and the bright young minds in labcoats working towards making Sweden safe and energy-efficient. Some of the postcards are still sold today.

As the decades loomed, the cold war came to an end and Sweden’s public opinion on nuclear shifted towards the negative.

Leif accurately summorised: “Whether we like it or not, it is part of our cultural heritage. And it is built mainly with Swedish taxpayers’ money. So we have a right to it.”

R1 may be used for a different purpose now but the ethos remains the same – whether for the sake of science or art – the point of it is to better the human knowledge and experience through experimentation.