Sweden has long opposed nuclear weapons, but once had other plans

Photo: Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP / Profimedia

In the years after World War II, neutral, peace-loving Sweden embarked on an ambitious plan – to build its own atomic bomb.

Sweden has not fought a war since 1814. But more than 20 years after the end of World War II, this formerly neutral northern European country was pursuing a plan to equip its military with the ultimate weapon, the atomic bomb. The government finally shut down the program in 1968 after a long public debate, he writes BBC.

In doing so, Sweden joined the only club of nations – which includes Switzerland, Ukraine and South Africa – that have given up their nuclear weapons programs and shown the world that nuclear disarmament is possible.

The extent of Sweden's nuclear program was "embarrassing" to politicians keen to burnish the country's new anti-nuclear credentials, until journalist Krister Larsson uncovered the truth in 1985 and forced the nation to confront its secret nuclear history.

The shroud of secrecy surrounding the program's history has fueled speculation that Sweden still has a top secret plan to build its own nuclear weapons.

Decades later, Sweden is now ending 200 years of neutrality and joining the nuclear-armed NATO alliance following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Why did he even want to build nuclear weapons? Why did it stop?

Sweden in NATO / Photo EPA-EFE/Jonas Ekstromer

In Ursvik, a quiet suburb of Stockholm, there is a large school building that looks more like a secret research institute – because that's what it once was. The headquarters of the former Swedish National Defense Research Institute (FOA) is one of the few physical remnants of Sweden's nuclear weapons program.

The fiercely independent nation's supreme military commander asked the newly formed FOA to prepare a secret report on the possibility of Sweden building its own atomic bombs two weeks after reports - and pictures - of the devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came in.

Sweden may have been a neutral country, but it was a nation whose leaders believed in armed neutrality—that the price of neutrality was a strong military—and its leadership realized that tactical atomic bombs for use on the battlefield might be needed in the future to preserve that neutrality. The country's long coastline and small population made the country "easy prey" for an adversary such as the neighboring USSR.

The Nordic country has its own uranium deposits, albeit of low quality. It is a prosperous country with a healthy infrastructure thanks to its neutrality during World War II. The plan to build an atomic bomb was not as far-fetched as it may sound today.

Three years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Negasaki, in 1948, the FOA established a "Swedish line" for Sweden to produce a plutonium-based atomic bomb without the need for foreign aid. Their plan was to obtain plutonium by fissioning Swedish uranium in Swedish heavy water nuclear reactors.

Atomic Explosion Over Hiroshima / August 6, 1945 / Photo: Rights-managed, Restrictions:, Model Release: no, Credit line: Science Photo Library / Sciencephoto / Profimedia

Still operating under the cloak of secrecy, Swedish scientists were forced to slowly and expensively start from scratch, due to a lack of supply of high-grade uranium and no information exchange with the United States. A decision was also made to link the nuclear weapons program with the civilian program as needed – and to conceal its true nature.

"So we had everything to produce weapons-grade plutonium," says Thomas Jonter, author of The Key to Nuclear Containment: Sweden's Cold War Nuclear Weapons Acquisition Plans. "The plan included two reactors. "One, Agesta, a heavy water reactor south of Stockholm, and another, Marviken, built outside the city of Norröspin but never put into production and the idea was to build 100 tactical weapons," Jonter says.

"We knew exactly how it should be done. We had everything but the processing facility and the weapons carrier system.

The slow pace of the weapons program, however, would ultimately be its undoing.
There was no public debate about the plans, for the simple reason that their existence was known only to a narrow circle of politicians, senior military officers and scientists (and, presumably, Soviet spies). That secrecy ended in 1954, when the Swedish Commander-in-Chief, Nils Swedlund, revealed the existence of the program and claimed that the weapon was needed to defeat the Soviet invasion.

In April 1957, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessed that Sweden had a "sufficiently developed reactor program to enable it to produce a nuclear weapon within the next five years", an assessment that was soon reduced to four years.

At the time, the prime minister of Sweden was Teijs Erlander, who made sure to regularly talk to the world's leading physicists about atomic bombs, including Nobel laureate Niels Bohr.

Danish physicist who made some brilliant early contributions to nuclear physics and was smuggled out of German-occupied Denmark in World War II to join the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. The more the Prime Minister spoke, the more he wavered in his support for the nuclear weapons program, and seeking consensus, he repeatedly delayed a final decision until the outcome of US-Soviet arms control talks was known.

The negative US attitude towards Sweden's nuclear plans was crucial, given the growing defense cooperation between the two countries in other areas, including adapting Swedish airfields to accommodate US bombers.

Sweden's armed forces and civilian nuclear power program have come to rely on American technology for things like missile systems, the design of new civilian light-water nuclear reactors, data and even nuclear fuel, effectively making Sweden's search for its own nuclear weapons even more difficult. At one point, Sweden even explored the possibility of buying American nuclear weapons.

There was also a growing belief among the Swedish elite that Sweden did not need to develop its own nuclear weapons because the country was under the US nuclear umbrella, even though it was not actually a member of NATO.

During the 1960s, Sweden – led by Alva Myrdal – became heavily involved in international efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, which intensified the campaign against Sweden's own weapons; even supporters of the original plan then wanted only research to continue, not production.

This change was reflected in public opinion. In 1957, 40% of the public supported the acquisition of nuclear weapons, with 36% opposed and 24% unsure. Eight years later, only 17% were in favor, with 69% against and 14% unsure.

It all reflected the reason for Sweden to give up nuclear weapons.

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