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Finland: New reactor and waste disposal plans

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 15, 2000) Nuclear power in Finland is a very interesting topic at the moment. Questions concerning a new nuclear power plant and a final disposal facility are both in the political process. Both are projects that have global implications.

(540.5228) Sami Wilkman - No other EU country is planning to build further nuclear power plants. In the whole OECD only Japan and South Korea, apart from Finland, have such plans. A political approval for a final disposal of spent nuclear fuel, on the other hand, is unique even globally. How has Finland come to this point and what seems to be the future for nuclear power in Finland?

In Finland nuclear power has had quite a similar history as in many other Western European countries. After the Second World War the high hopes for rapid development with nuclear power were also present in Finland. These hopes were partly materialized in 1977-1980 when four nuclear reactors were built. The plans were, of course, much bigger, and since then the Finnish industry has been planning and campaigning for the fifth nuclear reactor. The nuclear energy law, passed in 1987, requires that an application of an energy company to get a permit for a new nuclear facility has to be approved by both the government and parliament. Four years after the Chernobyl accident, in 1990, two large Finnish energy companies, PVO and IVO (today through a merger a subsidiary of Fortum) applied for a fifth reactor. They managed to get a positive decision in principle from the government, but the parliament decided in 1993 not to ratify the decision with votes 107 - 90. This was a costly and frustrating process for Finnish energy intensive industries which had tried hard to give the impression that the fifth reactor was absolutely crucial for them. Since 1993 energy consumption has increased in Finland and some new energy production has been built. The winner of this 1993 decision has definitely been wood-based fuel production, which has been promoted heavily during the last decade in Finland and has increased its volume more than 70 percent. Wood fuels are mostly used in the co-generation in the pulp and paper industry (where wood fuel is a by-product). In 1999 wood fuels supplied 19,5 % of the Finnish energy consumption, while nuclear power had a share of 18,4 %. In 1990 the figures were respectively 14,7 % for wood fuels and 17,4 % for nuclear power. Also the co-generation of district heating grew substantially during the last decade.

Despite these encouraging developments in sustainable energy use in the 1990s, the fate of Finnish nuclear power generation doesn't seem to be clear. The scenarios made by the industry and by the government project that Finnish energy consumption would increase substantially by the year 2010. To meet this increasing demand for energy and electricity the Finnish industry has once again proposed to build more nuclear power and has thus in November 2000 submitted an application for a decision in principle concerning the construction of a new nuclear power plant unit. TVO, the company applying for the fifth reactor and owned mainly by the Finnish energy intensive industry, has stated that the new power plant will partly cover the additional need for electricity and replace aging nuclear plants which are to be decommissioned. TVO also mentions in its press release that a new nuclear power plant helps to secure a sufficient domestic production capacity and ensure that the price of electricity would be stable and predictable in the long term.

The cost of electricity and its stability have been the main arguments of the Finnish paper and metal industry already for decades. Especially the production of mechanical pulp, which is a raw material for certain types of paper, requires a lot of electricity. Paper companies are investing in mechanical pulp capacity because mechanical pulp is used to make paper for magazines, which have rapidly expanding markets. The metal industry is also growing fast at the moment and the cost of electricity is important to it. In industrial and governmental studies nuclear power has been presented as one of the cheapest ways to make electricity in Finland with estimated costs between 2 - 2.4 US cents/kWh. Although the Finnish nuclear power plants have had an operational record with high capacity factor (over 90 %), these costs seem surprisingly low if compared to nuclear electricity prices in other countries. Low prices require also long contracts from buyers. On the open electricity market the assumption that someone would agree on buying electricity for decades from the same producer seems to be in contrast with the logic of open markets.

The replacement of some of the existing plants has also been used as an argument to build more nuclear power. However, this argument is weak. The Finnish environmental NGOs commissioned in 1999 a report that was compiled by researchers from four different universities in Finland. This report showed that it is technically feasible for Finland to fulfil its future energy demand and to meet its CO2 emission reduction targets without new nuclear power by increasing the use of renewables and energy efficiency.

The use of nuclear facilities in Finland is regulated by the nuclear energy law. According to the law, plans for new nuclear power plants, as well as final disposal facilities of nuclear waste, have to be approved by the government and then by parliament. Together the governmental and parliamentary process will take approximately 1 - 2 years. Since TVO only recently submitted the application, the Finnish parliament will vote on the fifth nuclear reactor sometime during the year 2002. If the parliament votes in favor of the application, the fifth reactor will be operational in 2008.

One reason behind the timing of the application is the legislative period of the Finnish parliament. The next parliamentary elections will take place in March 2003. The industry wants to have the vote on the fifth reactor well before the elections in order to avoid the risk of postponing the vote to the next legislative period. The latest poll, made among the parliamentarians just after the new power plant application, shows that 60 MPs are in favour and 56 against the new power plant. This leaves 84 parliamentarians without a publicly known opinion and a lot of scope for political debate. The latest poll among Finnish people shows that 55 % of the Finns are against the new reactor while 42 % are in favor. There has also been some public discussion about submitting the whole issue to a referendum.

It may be in the interest of the companies concerned to have a positive decision in principle about building a reactor without starting the actual construction immediately. This decision would have several benefits for the applying company and it would easily silence any phase-out discussion in the near future. The license to build a new nuclear power plant would also help to negotiate a lower price of Russian natural gas, as the companies would have something to bargain with. This argument has gained more weight lately since no company has so far directly said that they would be financing the new power plant. Even TVO said that the investment decision would be done after a positive decision in principle from the government and the parliament.

The argument of the reduction of CO2 emissions has also been used by the nuclear industry. It is attempting to have new nuclear power included in the policy scenarios of the Finnish government in the national climate strategy, which is under preparation and should be finished by the end of February 2001. New nuclear power is thus seen as a way to reduce the "threat" of rising energy taxes and mandatory targets for increasing renewables. The debate around the national climate strategy is concentrated in two different scenarios. The main differences between these two scenarios are that one promotes a green tax policy with energy taxes and the other one an increased use of nuclear power. Both are technically feasible options and the discussion will focus on the costs of these different scenarios. Economic estimations made by different research centers will be presented in the beginning of 2001 and will probably show not much difference between these two options.

The discussion about the fifth reactor is intertwined closely to the question of the final disposal of radioactive nuclear waste produced in Finland. In 1996 the nuclear energy law was altered to ban the transport of nuclear waste abroad, and consequently the earlier practice to export nuclear waste from Finland to Russia was stopped. The governmental decision in principle from the year 1983 laid the schedule for the final disposal process, where the year 2000 was set to be a deadline for deciding the place for the final disposal. The political process has reached the moment that the Finnish parliament will - depending on the government decision - probably early in the year 2001 vote on the principal decision to continue with the planned final disposal process. If the Finnish parliament decides to approve the application for the deep disposal facility, Finland will be the first country in the world to accept politically the final disposal of high-level nuclear waste in bedrock.

The Finnish research on the issue has been criticized and it has been seen to be lagging behind compared to the research in some other countries like Sweden. Despite the fact that the research has been more thorough in these countries, they have not accepted the proposed technical solutions but instead have requested more research, whereas in Finland the political process seems to precede the technical investigation.

Some other concerns in the discussion about deep disposal in Finland are monitoring, the possibility of access to the nuclear waste in the facility, the size of the facility and the Finnish liability system. The access to the nuclear waste is seen important because it would enable the use of future advancements in nuclear waste disposal technology. The size of the deep disposal plant is closely linked to the discussion about the possible new reactor and the size should be adjusted only for the fuel used in the existing reactors. Also the degree of liability has been criticized for being too small, thus subsidizing nuclear power. If the decision in principle for final disposal is supported by the parliament, then, if carried out as planned, the construction of the final disposal facility will begin in 2010 and from the year 2020 the spent fuel will be placed into the Finnish bedrock.

All in all, in the near future, Finland is making globally significant political decisions concerning nuclear power. It remains to be seen whether these decisions help the world to become nuclear free.

Source and contact: Sami Wilkman, Green Parliamentary Group
00102 Parliament Finland
tel +358 9 432 3280 mobile +358 400 849 477 fax +358 9 432 2717