Why Sweden Did Not Build the Bomb: Testing the Swedish Case Against International Relations Theories

Why did Sweden choose, in the late 1960s, to abandon its long-standing nuclear weapons plans? A number of historical investigations have analyzed some aspects of this issue, particularly as it related to the public political debate in Sweden and the formulation of the Swedish defense doctrine in the postwar years. Some studies have attempted to explicate, from a more overarching perspective, why Sweden opted not to develop anuclear weapons capability, but these efforts have generally been hampered by heavy dependence on secondary source materials consisting of published English-language works. Taken together, these studies provide a far-from-complete picture of Sweden’s historical nuclear weapons plans. The main reason for this lack of a comprehensive picture has been the paucity of primary sources. Today, however, the end of the cold war and the declassification of large parts of the relevant documentary record, especially concerning the technical preparations for nuclear weapons production, have created the prerequisites for a more penetrating analysis of this important historical issue. The purpose of this presentation is to summarize the research on Sweden’s plans to acquire nuclear weapons based on primary sources. This overarching analysis is then tested against International Relation theories which have sought to explain factors of proliferation and non-proliferation.

Thomas Jonter is Professor in International Relations at the Department of Economic History, Stockholm University. His research is focused on nuclear non-proliferation and energy security. He is also project leader for different educational and research programs in Russia with the aim to initiate academic courses and programs in nuclear non-proliferation at different universities in the regions of Tomsk and Jekaterinburg. These projects are carried out in a cooperation between Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Monterey, United States, and  Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).  Professor Jonter is also chair of the ESARDA (European Safeguards and Research Development Association) working group for Training and Knowledge Management. Currently he is a visiting scholar at The Europe Center at Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University.


Audio Synopsis:

First, Professor Jonter explains that Sweden initiated nuclear weapons research in the 1950’s because of the presence of a large uranium supply, ample technological and scientific knowledge, and concerns about self-defense. He cites wide support for nuclear research during that time, including from Prime Minister Tage Erlander, the Defense Ministry, and the military. In 1945 the Swedish National Defense Research Establishment created plans for a nuclear weapons program within a civilian nuclear power program, necessitating high levels of cooperation between military and civilian entities.  Despite pressure from the United States to abandon nuclear research, uranium production began in 1955 along with the construction of two reactors. Eventually, social groups within Sweden protested and a debate emerged within Parliament, resulting in a decision that Sweden would only pursue research related to self-defense against the Soviet Union. Behind the scenes, however, nuclear weapons research carried on covertly for some time. Jonter addresses questions of whether the program was really weapons-based or simply scientific research, how the debates in Sweden were influenced by criticisms at home and abroad, the role of private investors in the Swedish nuclear research program, and the factors that ultimately allowed Sweden to publicly back away from a weapons program.

Professor Jonter then examines implications for the international system by analyzing the Swedish nuclear case in light of several international relations theories. He also considers the argument that "outward looking" states which are active in international trade are less likely to develop nuclear weapons. Jonter asserts that research on this topic would benefit from more historical analysis of primary resources, although the secret nature of nuclear records make them difficult to access.

 A question and answer period following the presentation addressed such issues as: How does the Swedish case study compare with the Danish case? Did the Swedish government tie its hands with a public decision not to pursue weapons development? Is there evidence of Sweden having to balance nuclear weapons research with other military expenses?  Why did the government switch from high levels of secrecy about the nuclear program decisions to a policy of openness and public discussion?