Forward to the cave

January 10, 2013 | 00:00

Forward to the cave

Does Olkiluoto-3 in Finland represent the first practical demonstration of a new generation of nuclear power plants in Europe? Or the last gasp of a dying technology?

Surely this is the question at the back of everybody's mind when we think about nuclear power, at least here in Europe. (In Asia it's a different story, in the US perhaps not so different.) The answer will be extremely important for the energy sector as a whole.

Olkiluoto-3 is, as I am sure you know, the first so-called European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) that is being built in Europe - technology developed by Areva, Siemens and EDF that is supposed to give nuclear power a new lease on life.

And you are undoubtedly also aware that it has not had very auspicious beginnings. It was supposed to have been ready in 2009 but will not enter into service before 2015 at the earliest. It was supposed to have cost €3 billion but will now have a price tag of €8.5 billion by the latest count. (The projected cost of the second EPR that is being built in Europe - by EDF in Flamanville, France - has also been raised recently to €8.5 billion.)

Yet, when our Brussels correspondent Sonja van Renssen travelled to Finland recently, she found that the Finns have by no means given up on the project - or on nuclear power in general. On the contrary, they are planning to start building another new nuclear power plant at a greenfield site - the first greenfield nuclear project in Europe in decades. Even more significantly, they are building what will likely be the first permanent storage site for nuclear waste in the world.

So how - and why - do the Finns do it? And could other countries imitate their example - if they wanted to?

If you read Sonja's in-depth account, you will discover that this is a complex story. A lot of its ingredients are probably unique to Finland, but they do contain lessons for other countries. Thus, for example, the Finnish nuclear regulator has an extremely good reputation as a fully independent and highly demanding watchdog. That helps build trust.

One other element in her story that I found interesting is that nuclear power is not a party-political issue in Finland. Almost all parties are split on the issue and parliamentarians can vote on legislative proposals according to their own conscience.

Perhaps it's an interesting question to ask yourself: what would you do if you had to vote on a project like Olkiluoto? Or, maybe even more difficult, on Onkalo - the permanent storage site for nuclear waste on the Olkiluoto Peninsula?

By the way, Onkalo (Finnish for "cave") will be around for 100,000 years, Sonja tells us. Mmmh - when were the pyramids built again?


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