17 Jan 2002 – The decision today by the government of Finland to approve, in principle, the construction of a fifth nuclear reactor may be viewed by many as a surprise as it is certainly out of step with attitudes towards the nuclear industry elsewhere in Europe. In fact, although the voting was expected to be close, a positive outcome had been predicted, and, in the event, the margin of ten to six votes was fairly comfortable. Today the Finnish Minister for Trade and Industry, Mrs. Sinikka Monkare, declared that the project, “was in line with the overall good of society.”

While European partners like Sweden and Germany are actively taking steps to phase out their nuclear electricity generation capability, Finland has now taken a step towards choosing a diametrically opposed route by approving the construction of a new, fifth nuclear unit. The contrast in attitudes couldn’t be greater. But what is driving Finland to swim against the European tide and what are the chances of the proposed new reactor unit ultimately being built?

Enthusiasm for nuclear power production across Europe and the US has been distinctly cool in recent years with the environmental and security arguments put forward by the green lobby holding sway. Despite this, worldwide production of electricity from nuclear installations in 2000 increased over the preceding year as a result of efficiency upgrades and plants coming on line. Only the recent power crisis in California has brought nuclear back onto the agenda with both the US and UK having said that the option will be considered as part of their respective energy reviews.

Finland has been considering adding to its nuclear generating capability for a number of years. The last time the Finnish nuclear power producer, Teollisuuden Voima Oy (TVO) applied to build a new nuclear reactor was in 1993. In the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster approval was not given but since then, the Finnish economy has experienced enormous growth and with that has come a relentless demand from more electricity. This has prompted TVO to reapply, in the hope that the Fins will now see that the nuclear option is the most attractive for averting the looming power shortfall.

Growth in demand
Finland is an energy thirsty country, driven by forestry, metal and Hi-Tec industries. By contrast, it has limited fuel sources and as a country, imports 72 per cent of its energy needs. For Finnish industry to flourish, it needs a reliable electricity supply.

In 1970 Finland consumed 20 TWh of electricity which by 1980 had doubled. Despite suffering a slowdown in the economy in the 1990s, demand has continued to increase at the same rate so that in 2000 consumption is running at 80 TWh. The Finnish Industries’ Federation, Finergy, estimates that electricity consumption will increase by approximately 1.5 per cent annually to the year 2010 and that 3800 MW of new power plant capacity will be needed to meet the predicted 95 TWh demand.

Finland has to find a way of meeting this demand and, if possible, reduce the level of energy imports, nearly three quarters of which, come from Russia.

Electricity generation mix
Finland, like all the Nordic countries, is very dependent upon hydropower generation, which accounts for 16 per cent of production. 14 per cent of electricity is currently imported leaving the country vulnerable to weather and price fluctuations. Wood-fired power generation accounts for 12 per cent of production as does coal. Natural gas is used for ten per cent of production.

Environmental concerns
As an EU member Finland is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the terms of the Kyoto Convention. Proponents of expanding nuclear production in the country point out that nuclear power does not generate emissions promoting global warming. Any increase in coal-fired generation would work against Finland’s emissions targets – although coal is not currently competitive against the lower Nordpool power prices.

The application
Against this background, TVO took the decision in 2000 to submit its application for approval in principle to construct a fifth reactor on the site of one of the two existing plants in Loviisa on the east coast or Olkiluoto on the west. The application for a new nuclear plant unit, storage for fresh nuclear fuel and interim storage for spent fuel first needed a decision in principle from the Council of State. The government granted this approval today, having taken into account statements from all interested parties and the outcome of a public hearing. However, the entry into force of the decision-in-principle is subject to the ratification by the Finnish Parliament.

The application process was delayed by an objection from a local resident, which resulted in legal proceedings.

If Parliament ratifies the Council’s decision, TVO will be able to begin the bidding process for the supply and construction contracts and will make a construction permit application. At the same time, environmental assessments will be taking place in order that all necessary permits can be given and construction commence. Finally, TVO will need to obtain an operating permit to commence commercial operations.

TVO will have five years in which to submit an application for a construction licence before the decision will expire.

The most optimistic timescale would see the new unit being brought into operation at the end of this decade.

TVO have applied for a plant intended to have a net electrical output of 1000 MW to 1600 MW, depending on the choice of design. Annual output would be between 8 to 12 billion kWh and the plant would have a life expectancy of 60 years.

The choice
Public opinion in Finland has been divided over the wisdom of approving a new reactor plant. The fact that at least half of the population appear to support the application is, in part, due to its attitude towards its eastern neighbour and a strong desire to avoid a dependence by industry on the supply of imported electricity from Russia. Despite this, new interconnectors are planned – a 300 MW link to Russia and a 200 MW connection to Estonia.

The Confederation of Finnish Industry and Employers TT, which supports the application, has been trying to encourage public debate and to influence opinions about the fifth reactor.

An umbrella group of environmental groups has consistently fought the new development. Their objections relate to the risk of a nuclear accident, the long-term implications of storing waste and the environmental impact. The group of Green Party MPs which form part of the five-party ruling coalition have threatened withdraw from government if the vote in Parliament, expected to take place in Spring 2002, goes against them. Some see this as a hollow threat. Indeed as members of the cabinet, the Greens were party to an earlier collective decision to consider all forms of energy production. Finland’s next election is in March 2003 and a decision is promised by then.

The application enjoys the support of the Trade and Industry Minister responsible for energy, Mrs. Mönkäre who points out need to maintain a diversified energy policy in Finland. In a recent interview she said of the application that, “the decision will be in three parts. First; whether more nuclear power is good for Finland, second; whether the plan which TVO will have to submit is acceptable and third; is it safe to operate the plant?”. Mrs. Mönkäre welcomed the fact that, in her view, the debate had been objective and democratic.

The decision
At a press conference following today’s decision Mrs. Mönkäre said that Finland had international obligations with regard to emission control which meant that it had to find means to replace coal-fired electricity production. She said that the government needed to ensure a secure supply of electricity but would be, “supporting energy production from renewable sources by investment subsidies and taxation. It would also aim to further curb demand for electricity substantially by promoting energy conservation measures.”

The government said that giving the go-ahead to TVO is the most cost-effective power alternative in terms of central government finances and the national economy and that it will lead to price stability for electricity in Finland.

Today’s “in principle” vote allows plans to construct of the new reactor and disposal of spent nuclear fuel to move on to the next stage. It is still however far from certain whether the fifth reactor will ever be built. The process requires public support and political will over a long period of time during which time attitudes might change possibly under pressure from European partners as Finland becomes ever closer integrated within the EU.

The fact that Finland has a unique set of circumstances is undeniable and, history shows that, as a people, the Fins are perfectly prepared to resist outside influence when it suits them. Only time will tell whether Finland’s current energy preference turns out to be nuclear’s last stand in Western Europe or whether other countries might in future years find reason to be swimming along with the Fins.