By Matti Remes, April 2008
There is a lively debate under way in Finland about the country’s future energy supply and the options available to meet rising demand. Building additional nuclear power plants is one of the alternatives being explored.
Finland's energy challenges are shared by many countries in the developed world: energy consumption is on the rise and at the same time, the government has committed to reducing the country's greenhouse gas emissions by ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. This means having to decommission coal-fired power plants and substituting their output with clean energy from alternative sources. Where Finland differs from its neighbours, particularly Russia and Norway, is that it has no natural oil or gas reserves to exploit.
Within this context, Finland faces decisions in the near future about which forms of energy production it is going to support. Increasing the use of nuclear power is currently under scrutiny, along with a debate about the viability of using different renewable energy sources.
The government's role in nuclear power projects is to grant licenses and monitor the safety of the plants. A high level of safety is a precondition for the construction and use of nuclear power in Finland.
"When it comes to the use of nuclear energy, safety always comes first," emphasizes Riku Huttunen, Deputy Director General, Ministry of Employment and the Economy.
Along with safety considerations, the environmental impact, raw materials used and future self-sufficiency are key issues affecting the choice of energy source. Finland currently imports most of its energy and its ratio of imported electricity is amongst the highest in Europe.
A fifth nuclear power reactor is currently under construction in Finland. According to Finnish Energy Industries, an organisation representing electricity producers, the country needs two additional nuclear reactors.
This differs from the government estimate. Minister of Economic Affairs Mauri Pekkarinen believes that, at most, there is a need for one more reactor in addition to the reactor currently being built. The government wants the nation’s focus to shift to conserving electricity and developing renewable energy sources, which currently provide one-fourth of Finland’s total energy consumption and account for more than a fourth of its power generation.
At present there are three organisations planning to build additional nuclear power plants:
The EIA process involves two stages. First, the power companies prepare the EIA programmes. During stage two they draw up EIA reports, which are submitted to the Ministry of Employment and the Economy. In due course, the ministry submits a final statement on the sufficiency of the EIA report, based on the comments and opinions presented in the assessment programme.
The license applications of companies planning new power plants are reviewed by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy.
It assesses their compatibility with the energy markets and the national economy, as well as their acceptability in terms of safety and environmental aspects. In the hearing phase, the public, as well as the authorities, has the opportunity to express opinions.
"We are prepared to receive between zero and three decision-in-principle applications by spring 2009," says Jorma Aurela, Senior Engineer, Ministry of Employment and the Economy.
In its decision-in-principle, the government looks at whether the new power plants are of overall benefit to society. Even if the government makes a positive decision, Parliament has the final say; it either approves or rejects the government's decision-in-principle.
"In addition to this, a nuclear power plant requires a government-issued construction license and an operating license. The operating license also takes into consideration whether nuclear waste management has been arranged in the legislated manner," Aurela explains.
The first national nuclear power plant in Finland was commissioned in 1977. Now there are four reactors producing a quarter of the nation's electricity.
The debate about the additional construction of nuclear power heated up at the turn of the millennium, when the government received TVO's application for the construction of the fifth nuclear power plant. Parliament approved the government's favourable decision in 2002 by a vote of 107 to 92.
"It was clear that more electricity was needed. In addition, the need to reduce greenhouse gases was a topic of discussion in Parliament and the media. The responsible coordination of nuclear waste management was also a critical factor," says Riku Huttunen.
Contributing to the support for nuclear power, he says, is the fact that the country has an accident-free record.
"The Finns feel that nuclear power is safe. Municipalities may even compete to host the new plant construction."
The Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) oversees the safety of nuclear power operations. It monitors the safety and the security and emergency arrangements of existing plants, as well as those under construction.
"Our job is to thoroughly review and inspect the plant’s safety and to oversee its implementation," says STUK's Petteri Tiippana, Section Head of Plant Projects.
"Detailed accident and transient analyses are made for the new plant; these analyses look at how the reactor and the fuel will behave in the event of a transient or accident situation at the plant. The analyses take into account various-sized pipe breakages as well as fires, floods, aircraft crashes and other external risk factors."
According to Tiippana, the monitoring standards in Finland are high internationally. This has become apparent in the construction of the new plant in Olkiluoto. As a result of the monitoring by different parties, about 2,000 quality deviations related to equipment, structures or performance of organisations have been reported so far.
"We are very open in publishing deviations. Uncovering them indicates that the monitoring system works. The purpose of the reporting is to bring the deviation into compliance with the original requirements."
STUK monitors the quality of products intended for a nuclear power plant at their place of manufacture.
Along with additional construction, nuclear power companies are also working on the final disposal of nuclear waste, because nuclear waste management preparations, funding, and safe implementation are the responsibility of plant operators.
The law stipulates that radioactive waste produced in Finland must be handled and disposed of domestically. With low- and medium-level radioactive waste, final disposal has progressed to the implementation phase.
TVO and Fortum have selected the bedrock in Olkiluoto as the final repository for the spent fuel from their own power plants in Olkiluoto and Loviisa. According to TVO's Anneli Nikula, Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications and CSR, the related research has advanced to the final stretch.
"We are among the frontrunners in the world in final disposal research. And the financial foundation for final disposal has been secured, because the financing needed for final disposal is collected in advance in the price of the electricity produced by the nuclear power plant."
The nuclear power plant under construction in Olkiluoto has received plenty of international attention.
"Many people say that it was a bold decision to grant a license for a new power plant. There have not been new nuclear power projects in Western Europe since the early 1990's. There has been an especially high number of contacts from the UK, where the nuclear power policy has been realigned," Riku Huttunen says.
He emphasizes that the government takes a neutral stand on nuclear power, and that industry's possible applications are handled on a case-by-case basis.
"The government neither builds nor funds the construction of nuclear power. The projects are implemented solely on a commercial basis," says Huttunen.
"If nuclear power is used, it must be done safely and responsibly."
Nuclear power in Finland
Demand to increase
Anneli Nikula, Senior Vice President, TVO, estimates that electricity demand will increase by 1.5 percent annually in Finland.
"New nuclear power is needed not only to satisfy the growing energy consumption, but also to compensate for the coal-fired power plants that will be decommissioned. New capacity must be found to replace the plants built in the 1960 and '70s," Nikula notes.
Nikula also rationalizes the building of additional nuclear power with the reliable supply of energy.
"About 15 percent of the electricity used in Finland is imported, but will our neighbours have enough electricity to sell to us in the upcoming years? Russia's own energy consumption is growing. With the cold winters they've had in recent years, there hasn't been enough electricity to export. Norway and Sweden have also had their own capacity problems."
Fifth nuclear power plant by 2011
The 1,600-megawatt nuclear power plant under construction in Olkiluoto was supposed to be production-ready in spring 2009, but delivery problems have resulted in a two-year delay. The supplier of the power plant is a consortium formed by the French Areva and Germany's Siemens.
"The basic reason for the delay is that new safety requirements were added before the decision-in-principle was made. The equipment supplier wasn't adequately prepared for them," says Anneli Nikula, Senior Vice President, TVO.
She believes that the new timetable will hold and that the plant can commence operations in 2011.
One reason for scheduling problems, says Nikula, is that there haven't been any power plants built in Western Europe for years. "So, training the subcontractors, for example, took longer than expected."
The fact that nuclear power plants haven't been built has also been visible in the number of quality deviations at the Olkiluoto work site.
"Correcting them has taken a lot of resources, but know-how has also increased," says Section Head of Plant Projects Petteri Tiippana from STUK.
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