By Fran Weaver, May 2010
The Finnish Government aims to fill a gap in the national energy supply by building two new atomic power plants while also increasingly investing in renewable energy production.
Finland's energy-hungry industries have long been putting pressure on the government to safeguard their power supply, and reduce the country's dependence on imported electricity. At the same time EU targets oblige Finland to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil oil, coal, gas and peat – and to produce enough renewable energy to cover 38% of all energy consumption by 2020.
This leaves Finland with a large energy gap to fill, since in 2009 fossil fuels accounted for more than half of the country’s energy use.
About 28% of Finland’s electricity supply today comes from four existing nuclear plants: two run by Fortum at Loviisa on the south coast; and TVO's two reactors at Olkiluoto on the west coast. After repeated delays due to quality and safety concerns, the construction of Finland's fifth reactor, TVO's Olkiluoto 3, is now due to be completed by 2012.
Parliament is now considering new legislation proposed by the government which would give the green light to two more major reactors: TVO's Olkiluoto 4; and a reactor to be built in northwest Finland at Simo or Pyhäjoki by the specially formed consortium Fennovoima – whose partners include major Finnish industrial companies and the German-based energy giant E-on. Subject to Parliament's approval, both reactors could be running by 2020.
"The main reasons for increasing nuclear production are to make Finland self-sufficient in electricity, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly by replacing older coal-fired plants," says nuclear power specialist Jorma Aurela from the Ministry of Employment and the Economy. Aurela explains that in recent years as much as 15% of the electricity consumed in Finland has had to be imported – including large amounts produced in Russia's Chernobyl-type Sosnovyi Bor nuclear facility near St Petersburg.
"With seven reactors on stream by 2020, we should be able to produce about half of the electricity we consume using nuclear energy," says Aurela. "Our energy policies specify that we must not set up nuclear capacity for permanent export purposes, but during some periods it could happen that Finland would export some nuclear energy through the Nordic and Baltic grids. These major investments would also help to activate Finland's own nuclear technology industry and build up its export potential."
Expertise on the storage of nuclear waste is already a Finnish strength. Parliament is presently also deciding whether to give the go-ahead to a planned extension of Posiva's permanent nuclear waste repository facility at Olkiluoto, where additional radioactive waste from TVO's Olkiluoto 4 reactor would be stored.
Construction work on the Posiva facility, known as "Onkalo" (The Hole), is progressing well – making it the most highly developed permanent storage facility for radioactive waste anywhere in the world. By 2020 The Hole should be ready to start burying wastes fuel from the six reactors run by TVO and Fortum. Fennovoima has not yet prepared firm plans for the final disposal of its spent nuclear fuel. These highly hazardous radioactive wastes must be kept well out of harm’s way for as long as 100,000 years.
This spring the government has also announced an extensive package of measures aiming to boost renewable energy production and help Finland meet its tough EU target.
"We envisage that nearly half of the necessary increase in renewable energy production will be achieved by promoting the use of woodchips from our forests to produce heat and power," says counsellor Anja Liukko from the Ministry of Employment and the Economy. Finland's vast forests are presently growing faster than wood is being harvested, so there is clear potential for the environmentally sustainable use of wood energy – especially since demand for wood from the paper industry has dwindled.
"But in seeking to increase the share of renewable energy we really have to look at all possibilities," stresses Liukko.
Finland's hydropower potential is already developed to the full, as the remaining unharnessed rivers are protected for nature conservation. But Liukko envisages rapid increases in the use of biofuels for road vehicles, and ambient-source heat pump systems for homes and other buildings.
Wind power is still comparatively underdeveloped in Finland, accounting for just 0.3% of electricity consumption. But the recently completed national wind atlas indicates plentiful potential in coastal sites. "Legislation introducing feed-in tariffs that would guarantee good prices to wind power producers could enable the construction of hundreds of new wind turbines in suitable sites, rapidly multiplying Finland’s wind power production," says Liukko.
Similar support could be provided for the production of energy from biogas and other biomass-based fuels if Parliament approves the related policies later this year.
"Major investments in renewable energy production can have lots of other positives in addition to reducing emissions – in terms of employment, energy self-sufficiency, technology development and related export potential," says Liukko.
Some of the newly proposed energy policies are far from unanimously backed even within the government. The Greens form part of the present government coalition, but remain staunchly opposed to any nuclear expansion. The Greens' energy spokesman Oras Tynkkynen believes Finland's future energy needs should be reassessed in the light of the recent recession.
"We have set out detailed plans showing that by 2020, after Olkiluoto 3 is producing electricity and the government's plans to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy have been implemented, Finland will no longer need to import electricity – and it will still be possible to greatly reduce the use of fossil fuels," says Tynkkynen, who also serves as climate policy advisor to Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen.
When the free parliamentary vote is held over the coming weeks some MPs from all parties may oppose the new nuclear plants – calling instead for even greater investments in renewable energy and measures to enhance energy efficiency. Another key element of Finland's climate and energy policies is a wide-ranging energy efficiency action plan launched by the government in February 2010 to help close the energy gap from the other side, by reducing demand.
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