Beautiful, green and very nuclear

Friday, September 7, 2007

(By Dana Spinant) One of Finland’s most unlikely tourist attractions is Olkiluoto, a small island off the west coast, which is home to the first nuclear reactor being built in Europe in more than a decade.The site, which has two nuclear reactors in use as well as the one under construction, attracted 23,000 visitors last year, with around 20% from abroad. As well as welcoming Finnish families, schoolchildren and retired people, the plant’s managers are also kept busy greeting hundreds of foreign politicians and nuclear experts.

Olkiluoto 3 is seen as a test case for other EU states, wary of investing in nuclear projects. At about €3 billion, it is Finland’s biggest industrial investment. The new reactor will be the largest ever built, with a capacity of 1,600MW. It has safety features which the industry claims will usher in a new wave of nuclear technology.
Martin Landtman, project director at Olkiluoto 3, said that new technology would protect the reactor and prevent the escape of radioactivity in two worst-case scenarios. Thick concrete layers protect it against the impact of a jet crash, in the event of an attempted terrorist attack. The plant also has defences to the ‘China syndrome’ – which takes its name from a 1978 film starring Jane Fonda about a nuclear accident caused by the melting of a reactor’s core. What happened at Chernobyl in 1986 was “not far from that”, said Landtman.

According to the movie, the melting core of an overheated reactor would sink into the earth and drill its way to the other side of the globe – hence the reference to China.

At Olkiluoto 3, in the event of the core melting, which Landtman called “extremely unlikely”, the core material would be collected and cooled in a special area located underneath the reactor pressure vessel but inside the shell. The double-walled containment would prevent any release of radioactivity.

The sceptics are unconvinced. Jorgo Riss, head of the EU office of the environmental campaigners Greenpeace, said that there was no such thing as a safe nuclear plant. The risk of “direct accident or terrorist attack” was always present, he said.
At present, Olkiluoto 3 is a colossal building site, where thousands of workers, many from Poland, labour around the clock.
The largest crane in the world, which raised the Russian submarine Kursk that sunk in the Barents Sea in 2000, lifts massive concrete blocks which are to surround the reactor.

It was from the top of this crane that Greenpeace activists protested in July against alleged safety violations at the construction site and urged the plant’s owners, TVO – an electricity generation company owned by Finnish industry – to make public all documents describing the reported quality problems.

The activists climbed to 80 metres up the 100m high crane and occupied it for a few days ahead of a visit by European Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs.

But despite occasional protests by activists, the Finns are broadly supportive of nuclear energy.
While in many EU countries nuclear plants are being decommissioned and in others debates are raging about phasing out nuclear energy, Finland is contemplating building another two nuclear reactors in addition to Olkiluoto 3 in the next decade. This May, TVO submitted the environmental impact assessment programme for Olkiluoto 4, while the country’s other nuclear plant, Loviisa, also submitted in July an application to build a third reactor. The government’s answer is expected next summer.

It was Russia which brought nuclear energy to Finland. Many say that it was forced down the Finns’ throat. The Soviets built two reactors in Loviisa, in the east of the country, which started producing energy in 1977 and 1980. Once the Russians had broken the ice, two Swedish-built reactors were connected to the grid in 1978 and 1980 at Olkiluoto.
Nuclear power now provides roughly 25% of Finland’s energy consumption (the two Olkiluoto reactors supply 15% of the country’s energy needs). Olkiluoto 3 will bring the percentage to 35-40%.

Two upgrades in 1994-98 and 2005-06 have increased the life-expectancy of the plant from 40 to 60 years.
The case for nuclear power generation in Finland has been strengthened by fear of depending on Russia for energy and by a desire to combat global warming and avoid polluting forms of energy.

Lasse Lehtinen, a Finnish Socialist MEP, is an enthusiastic champion of nuclear energy.
“Nuclear energy is CO2-free and Russia-free,” he said.

Politicians from other countries, including Germany where the political elite is re-examining a decision by the previous centre-left-green government to phase out nuclear power by 2020, are coming to Finland to watch.

Insiders say that one of the secrets of Finland’s nuclear success is Finns’ faith in technology and trust of politicians.
Finnish public and political views on nuclear energy have evolved. In 1993, an initial request to build Olkiluoto 3 was rejected by parliament. Nine years later it was approved, although the vote was tight. In December 2003 France’s Areva and Germany’s Siemens then won the contract to build Olkiluoto 3. Areva is supplying the nuclear reactor, while Siemens is responsible for the conventional part (turbine and generator).

Initially expected to start operation in 2009, Olkiluoto 3 is unlikely to be ready before 2010 at the earliest, because of delays caused by construction problems.

Olkiluoto’s managers insist that it is the plant’s scrupulous safety standards, in accordance with requests from the Finnish authorities and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which have helped win the public’s trust. Safety tests are made four times a year.

Olli-Pekka Luhta, who is in charge of the environment at the Olkiluoto site, said that radiation around the plant was lower than in many other parts of Finland which are far away from nuclear plants. The level of radiation around the plant, Luhta said, was 0.27% of the level assessed as being safe by the Finnish authorities. The biggest impact on the environment, he said, was a warm pool a few metres away from the seashore, where water used to cool down the reactor is sent back into the sea. Pictures taken in winter show a black hole where the ice melts in the sea.

“The fish love it,” said Landtman with a smile, adding that it was forbidden to fish in that spot, where the fish relax in warmer water, as that would be unfair competition.

But one of the most disputed issues in the nuclear business is the disposal of nuclear waste. Landtman and Luhta insisted that Olkiluoto was meticulously preventing any radioactive contamination in the process of waste disposal.

Initially, spent fuel bars are cooled in water pools in the reactor building. After a few years, they are transferred to interim storage facilities on the plant site and kept under water for decades until their radioactivity and temperature decreases to the level required for final disposal.

The spent fuel’s final resting place will be underground, in the island’s rocks. The principle applied is ‘from bedrock to bedrock’. “Uranium occurs naturally in nature”, said Landtman, and spent fuel bars are eventually and after a long process returned to the earth’s bowels.

A final disposal facility is currently being built, at a depth of hundreds of metres in the Olkiluoto bedrock, to be operational from 2020. The spent fuel will be placed in canisters embedded in granite to separate the nuclear waste from organic matter and ensure that they are safely out of human reach. By 2120, the final disposal facility will be decommissioned and sealed.

Proper nuclear waste disposal is expensive, but Luhta said that its cost was included in the price of energy and was not being left over to future generations.

The disposal site, an incendiary issue in most European countries, has proved to be popular with the Finns: dozens of local communities bid to host the final waste deposit, seen by pragmatic locals as a source of jobs. In the end the plant’s own site was chosen, to avoid transporting fuel and because the stable rock conditions in the granite below the plant were suitable.
Low and medium-low radioactive material, such as gloves and overalls used by the plant’s staff, are also buried in rock.
But Greenpeace’s Riss said that Olkiluoto’s final waste disposal facility was “not a credible solution”.

“Spent fuel stays radioactive for tens of thousands of years and no one can be sure that there will not be an earthquake in this long time,” said Riss, adding that even deep underground rock embedded disposal sites were not safe in the event of an earthquake.

Although the Finnish economy and society seem ready to accommodate more nuclear energy, Landtman argued that a balance would have to be found between developing nuclear and encouraging renewable energies.

“There is still room for development of nuclear in Finland, since energy consumption, overall, is likely to increase. But there is a big debate how much nuclear you can do while allowing renewables to grow,” he said, emphasising that Finnish nuclear plants were developed with private money and not eating up subsidies for renewables.

For Landtman, nuclear energy has a future in Finland, but “it is not the only solution” to the country’s energy needs.

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