The Observer: Finland goes back to the future

Friday, February 3, 2006

As Britain seriously considers launching a new nuclear programme, Robin McKie visits Finland to see Europe's first reactor for more than a decade, built as the only answer to the country's energy needs

The first sight of the Olkiluoto nuclear complex in western Finland is decidedly unexpected. Towering over the plant's entrance is a massive wind turbine, slowly turning in the gales whipping snow and sleet across the bleak landscape - not what you anticipate from a nuclear power plant, particularly one destined to be the most advanced in Europe.
The turbine, I am assured by Martin Landtman, head of the plant, is there for a good reason. It shows Teollisuuden Voima Oy (TVO), the private company building the Olkiluoto complex, is committed to all forms of energy generation.

Well, up to a point, for Olkiluoto is certainly not renowned for its renewable energy but for the fact that Europe's first nuclear reactor for more a decade is being constructed there. Nuclear power is suddenly back on the agenda in Europe and, thanks to the folks at TVO, the Finns are leaders in the field. Why?

For a start, says Landtman, the arithmetic was utterly compelling. Consider the alternatives, like that wind turbine. It can generate, at most, 1 megawatt (MW) of electricity; Landtman's new reactor will churn out 1,600MW. 'To match that, you would need 1,600 wind turbines and they would cover dozens of miles of coastline round here,' he adds.

And it still would not be enough. During Finnish winters, temperatures often plunge below minus 20C. Masses of high-pressure air slowly swirl southwards from Russia and hold the country in a windless Arctic grip for several weeks. 'Wind turbines hardly move then,' says Landtman. 'You could build 10,000 and they would generate hardly a watt - just when people need electricity for their central heating and their saunas.'

As for other alternatives, Finnish homes are already well insulated, so when new power production was being planned in the 1990s it was clear there was little hope of making significant improvements in energy saving. At the same time, increasing coal and gas power station output was a non-starter, as Finland is an enthusiastic supporter of the Kyoto agreement on climate change.

Neither were new technologies considered an option. For example, carbon storage, which involves pumping carbon dioxide into old mines and oil wells so traditional power plants can continue burning oil, coal and gas, was rejected as Finland has few useful underground sites. In any case, the technology is untested.

'In the end, nuclear power was our only realistic option,' said Landtman.

Thus Finland became the first European country for more than a decade to opt to build a new reactor. Fission technology, condemned and killed off in the Eighties and Nineties, would be resurrected on this remote Finnish island, it was decided.

Of course, the country has its own, special energy problems that also influenced this decision. Electricity use has risen steadily by about 1 per cent every year, though overall energy consumption has remained stable. Other sources - wood, coal and oil - have simply been shunned. 'It's a matter of convenience. Once we lit logs to heat our saunas, now we just turn on a switch,' says Landtman.

Maintaining that electricity supply has not been easy, however, and has only been achieved by importing electricity from neighbouring Sweden and Russia. Such dependence - an issue that is only beginning to touch the rest of Europe - leaves the country vulnerable and has frequently produced wild fluctuations in power prices.

At times, major industrial users have found it cheaper to trim production and resell their electricity to other users. 'When electricity gets really pricey, we shut down part of our plant and sell it on to others,' says Pertti Asunmaa, general manager of the UPM-Kymmene Corporation, whose vast papermills dominate the coastal town of Rauma, near Olkiluoto. 'It makes money, but that is not what we are in business for. We would much rather have stable power supplies and prices.'

His company is one of the main partners in TVO, the private investment group that is providing the €3bn (£2bn) for Olkiluoto 3's construction. It considered six designs for the plant before selecting the French-German 'evolutionary' pressure water reactor. This is being built by France's Framatome and its turbine hall by Germany's Siemens. (The pair can be expected to be key bidders to construct new nuclear reactors in Britain, with the main competition coming from British-owned, but American- based, Westinghouse.)

Neither do the project's international credentials stop there. The reactor's uranium fuel will be mined in Canada, Australia and Africa and will then be enriched in Russia. Finally, it will be assembled and put into fuel rods in Sweden, Spain and Germany. However, the workforce - about 600-strong - will be 65 per cent Finnish.

Over the past year, they have gouged a massive pit beside Olkiluoto's existing two reactors (which have a combined output of 1,700MW each, only marginally more than Olkiluoto 3's) and are now lining that base with a three-metre thick layer of concrete on which the new reactor will sit.

Looming over this crater of steel and cement, one of the world's biggest cranes is lowering various components, including the reactor's 1,600 tonne steam generator, into place. When completed in 2009, this nuclear behemoth will be Europe's most advanced reactor and a marvel of nuclear safety, according to TVO. For example, if its control rods were to fail, triggering a core meltdown, a specially designed basin of concrete will hold the molten debris, preventing deadly releases of radioactive material.

Olkiluoto 3 will take Finland's nuclear power output from its current 27 per cent of total electricity production to 37 per cent. And, given that all its current plants have at least 25 years' operating life left in them, while Olkiluoto 3 has been built to last 60 years, it is clear that Finland is building a stable, carbon-free power capacity that will last much of the rest of the century.

One key worry remains, of course: waste. Spent nuclear fuel rods are the nastiest, most radioactive objects on the planet. Coping with them has been a headache for all reactor operators. Again, TVO insists it has the answers. It has built an underground depository for its low- and medium-level wastes (workers' clothing, tools and other material), a huge tunnel that gently descends through the solid granite beneath Olkiluoto to two vast silos 200ft below the surface.

Now it is constructing an even deeper facility, where old fuel rods, encased in stainless steel and copper, will be buried in galleries half a kilometre deep for thousand of years. All Finland's high- level nuclear waste will be stored at this facility, whose construction cost is included in the €3bn price-tag for Olkiluoto 3. (By contrast, Britain - although warned 30 years ago that reactor waste storage was the Achilles' heel of atomic power - has still done nothing about its mounds of old fuel rods.)

In all, Olkiluoto is an impressive set-up, constructed to a precise and careful plan. And that is the crucial point. You may be suspicious of atomic power, but if you are going to have a nuclear programme - and Britain is seriously considering launching a new one -Olkiluoto 3 shows how it should be done.

February 3, 2006,

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