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Nuclear energy in Finland - A heated debate
by Ovi Magazine Guest
2008-02-21 09:24:56
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Nuclear energy in Finland - A heated debate
Cynthia D'Cruz

In a world faced with climate change and global warming the days of fossil fuels are limited. The need for sustainable energy has pushed governments to find alternatives to coal, oil and other energy sources that have been deemed to pollutant, particularly in Finland.

Record high consumption

Finland is one of the highest energy consumers per capita in the world. Its electricity consumption has grown steadily over the years and has doubled since 1980. For this reason the Finnish government is now taking its energy policies very seriously. Although different initiatives have been proposed, the Finnish government has been taking a nuclear stance on its energy policy. This has been viewed as somewhat controversial within the population, but also from outside environmental groups, like Greenpeace. But despite this disapproval Finland is being hailed the success story of nuclear energy as well as a leader in this area for Europe.

Proposed solution: nuclear energy

The two main reasons given are the need to heat houses during cold Finnish winters and Finland’s paper and wood industry. This industry is extremely energy intensive, and therefore requires large amounts of energy at a cheap price. For this reason Mikko Palonkorpi, a researcher from the Aleksanteri Institute, specializing in energy politics, calls nuclear energy a “cost effective solution.”

Palonkorpi also feels a large part of Finland’s dependence on Nuclear energy is political. “We are already 100% dependent on Russia for natural gas, 80% dependent on Russia for oil, and 20% dependent I guess to the Persian Gulf. So we want a little more self sufficiency in our energy consumption.”

Palonkorpi says nuclear energy gives Finland a means to support its own industry, but also serve as a back up. “In case of emergency we would have some domestic production of energy that if something would go wrong in the relations between Nordic States or Russia that we would have something of our own.”

Palonkorpi also mentioned that nuclear energy helps Finland meet its Kyoto targets and reduce emissions.

Despite mixed feelings on the issue, Palonkorpi says that besides safety and other concerns, politicians are under a lot of pressure to keep nuclear energy going.

“Politicians are pressured by industry and industry provides jobs, and jobs provide votes for politicians. So that is kind of the combination of factors in a black and white sense that politicians are concerned about jobs, industry and competitiveness of Finland in international markets.”

Flash Back

In 2001 the Finnish government began to debate on whether to build a fifth reactor, Okiluoto 3. During this time the government decided to conduct a study to see whether it would be better to administer a renewable energy plan instead of investing in another nuclear reactor. Katja Alvoittu, secretary of the Green League, a political party in Finland, remarked on the economical benefits reported by the study.

“In terms of economics the cost of investment were almost the same, the only difference between the plans was that economically, the nuclear plan would pay itself off a few months before the renewable energy plan would.” This meant that economically it was just a question of a few months that set these plans apart.

In 2002 the motion came to vote. The vote was 107 in favor of building a nuclear reactor and 92 opposed. If eight parliamentarians had changed their mind, the motion would not have passed.

Renewable vs. nuclear

Although nuclear energy is able to fill many of the needed demands of the Finnish government, there are also some disadvantages to using it.

According to Veijo Ryhanen, a corporate advisor at Teollisuuden Voima Oy (TVO), one of Finland’s main power plant producers, it costs roughly 3 billion euros to build a power plant. This figure does not take into account the costs of repairs that need to be done over the years in order to keep up safety standards and efficiency.

The plant currently in construction, Okiluoto 3, has already gone beyond this 3 billion dollar budget due to an inability to meet safety standards as well as design problems, due to the subcontractor Areva’s inexperience. “Areva did not have capacity or the knowledge for all tasks connected with this project,” says Jouko Mononen, who is the senior advisor at STUK (Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority), a Finnish independent research group. He also added that despite Areva’s inexperience STUK would delay the project as long as it was necessary for Okiluoto 3 to meet all safety regulations. Fortunately, for Finnish taxpayers and TVO, Areva will be footing to the bill for these technical glitches and delays.

Risky Business

As for risks of another Chernobyl, Mononen says the risk of severe accident for a plant like Okiluoto is like one in 1 million years. Unlike Chernobyl, in this instance the term “severe accident,” means that the reactor core will melt down inside the reactor containment, without any emission to the Environment.

On April 26, 1986, what is thought to be the worst nuclear power plant accident in history occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The reactor burned for 10 days and released large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. According to a 2005 report done by the WHO, there were 56 immediate deaths, and estimated 4000 extra deaths due to cancer from the approximately 6.6 million most highly exposed.

Over the years there have been some small incidents in different plants that have reached different levels of seriousness, but nothing as serious or as severe as Chernobyl.

The problem of waste

Ryhanen believes that for environment, nuclear energy is “ one of the best means to produce energy nowadays.” But when it comes to waste management this isn’t entirely true. Although waste management technology has drastically improved over the years, the fact of the matter is not how to deal with it safely but whether it is good for the environment. “Nuclear waste has not proven being safe to be buried,” says Harri Lammi, Program Director in Greenpeace Nordic. “In fact research brings up significant surprises of how difficult nuclear waste is to isolate from the biosphere. It requires 300 000 years.”

Nuclear future outside Finland

In terms of what is expected in the future, there seems to be unanimous agreement that nuclear energy will be there. It is expected that several reactors will be built throughout Europe.

Currently in France, roughly 80 percent of electricity is supplied through nuclear energy. Though some countries like Austria, Italy, Denmark and Ireland prohibit the use of nuclear energy, while countries like Germany and Belgium are slowly trying to phase it out, there are countries such as Finland, France, Bulgaria and Ukraine that intend to expand their nuclear plans.

However, these mixed feelings on nuclear energy are not just being felt by Europeans countries, it’s also being felt between organizations within the EU commission.

One of these organizations, The Sustainable Nuclear Energy Technology Platform (SNE-TP), says that today, nuclear energy represent 31% of electricity production in the all 27 countries of the EU. According to Henri Paillere, from the Secretariat of SNE-PT, there is no way to phase out nuclear energy without the use of fossil fuels, unless one massively resorts to using fossil fuels.

Meanwhile the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) contradicts this claiming that nuclear could easily be phased out without adverse consequences, in a joint report with Greenpeace, (“Energy (R)evolution: a sustainable world energy outlook”). While Oliver Schäfer, Policy Director for the Brussels-based EREC, states that currently nuclear energy only has a 2% share of the global energy supply (EurActiv 28/08/07). These are stark differences in opinion and stark differences in predictions of the future.

Future of nuclear energy in Finland

Though Alvoittu believes that the solution for Finland’s over-consumption problem lies in the conservation of energy and the use of renewable sources, she senses that the Finnish government will still vote to build the sixth reactor. “We will of course vote against it, but I think the majority of ministers will vote for.”

Despite these predictable results Alvoittu feels the government should reconsider.

“Many of the arguments that were given are no longer valid anymore. Reactors are coming from France; workers are coming from Eastern Europe. So it’s no longer so national, it’s not so cheap, its not so affective or well kept in time.”

She says she hopes that the fifth one is the last one, but based on recent Parliament discussions it seems unrealistic. “We will definitely fight for the next one now. But it seems there are 2-3 plans to bring the sixth, seventh and possibly the eighth.”

Even STUK is preparing itself for a future of more reactors being built in Finland.

“We already have a project team for the sixth unit,” says Mononen, “and we have had internal discussions about if there will be a seventh unit, how STUK will manage to handle this previewed work because it is obvious that we need more people.”

Mononen also says there is a lack of experts in nuclear energy in Finland. He hopes that upcoming generations will fill this void.

Though the future of Finland looks like it will be filled with nuclear reactors, Greenpeace still hopes that the Finnish government will consider other possible alternatives. Lammi suggests cutting down on high-energy consumption patterns, but also finding better efficiency measures. “Finland did not implement energy efficiency measures, for example using of heat pumps in heating of houses, like Sweden did.”

Greenpeace also suggested that Finland introduce measure to reduce consumption and more active energy conservation policies. They also suggested that Finland invest in other eco friendly measures like public transport and promoting the use of bicycles.

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Get it off your chest
 (comments policy)

Sand2008-02-21 10:50:41
Aside from the problems of storage of nuclear waste the mining of uranium for fuel has serious health consequences for the miners. See http://www.ccnr.org/bcma.html

AP2008-02-21 13:26:00
Well, they use bicycles quite much... I must say one of the things which shocked me when I arrived in Finland was how most of my friends didn't seem to care minimally about turning the lights off when leaving home, or even sometimes inside the house. That's a capital sin in Portugal :) On the other hand, most portuguese still need to be educated not to drop papers and cigarettes on the floor. Only one thing I don't understand, -20 or not: the need to have marble floors heated with resistances under them. But alright.

johnny guitar2008-02-21 13:42:14
Of course if there's a one-in-a-million problem in a nuclear reactor, you can fuck up not only Finland but the entire Europe until Spain. The same with Spanish and French nuclear plants. Will we have to surrender to nuclear wonders then? Maybe.

johnny guitar2008-02-21 13:56:59
...and then in Italy they can tell the finns: "we've been enjoying your nuclear rains".

LK2008-02-22 10:42:15
Well, modern nuclear energy is very safe and by far the most enviroment friendly alternative in running. The waste issue is scary, but according to experts, in the future nuclear waste might be recycled. Private cars are a big concern too, you know....

johnny guitar2008-02-22 14:43:56
"by far the most enviroment friendly alternative in running" ??????? LOL
experts hired by companies will always tell you it's safe, they're selling their soap.
I guess in Austria, Denmark, Italy or Ireland they're all dumb asses by prohibiting it!

johnny guitar2008-02-22 14:52:41
...private cars are a big concern in athens, new delhi or madrid, but that's not where the finns attack the environment the most.

nium2008-02-23 03:44:19
Interesting picture. It seems to be suggesting that a body of water runs right in between two buildings of a nuclear plant somewhere in Finland. I wonder if this is standard practice. I can see that being a big problem, should a problem occur.

Sand2008-02-23 07:04:14
Water is most frequently used to cool a reactor so that is not unusual.

Sille kidmose2008-03-05 20:57:28
Very interesting article!!!!
"hvad skal væk.... Barsebæk" A sentence my mom yelled in her youth against the sweedish nuclear powerplant, that is located close to Denmark.

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