Finland, much like the United States, is facing growing energy
demands. It needs approximately to double its
electricity generation capacity in the next 25 years.
Finland ranks fifth in the world for per capita electricity
consumption, so it has a significant incentive to secure long-term
Unlike many nations-including the United States-that seem to put
political correctness ahead of sound policy, Finland is developing
a broad mix of environmentally friendly, economically competitive
energy sources. Nuclear energy is an important part of that effort.
Not only has Finland begun to construct a new, modern
1,600-megawatt reactor, but it is successfully executing a
cohesive, workable strategy to manage spent fuel. The United
States has done neither.
Olkiluoto 3 will be Finland's fifth power reactor and the first
one brought online since 1980. Officials are suggesting that a
decision will soon be made to build a sixth reactor.
Finland already generates about 28 percent of its electricity from
nuclear power, compared to about 20 percent in the U.S.
Why Nuclear in Finland
Nuclear energy is attractive to Finland and the United States
because it is environmentally friendly, safe, affordable, and
largely domestically produced. Like many other countries, Finland
is struggling to reconcile a desire (or mandate) to reduce carbon
dioxide emissions while maintaining economic competitiveness.
Under the new European Union energy plan, it will be forced to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, increase
renewable energy by 20 percent, and increase efficiency by 20
percent by 2020.
Meeting such demands will likely cause a spike in energy prices.
However, affordable energy is critical to sustaining economic
competitiveness in economies with high labor costs, expensive
environmental mandates, and other regulatory
expenditures. This is especially true in economies that depend
on energy-intensive activities like manufacturing, such as the
Finnish and U.S. economies. Thus, Finland concluded that access to
vast quantities of affordable energy should be a top national
priority. Given that nuclear power can provide that energy
affordably and with zero carbon dioxide emissions, it was an
Cost Overruns and Nuclear Power
Critics have questioned the economic viability of nuclear power
based on delays associated with Finland's reactor. At
$1.4 billion over budget and two years behind schedule, Finland's
reactor has had its problems. However, these delays and
cost overruns are not necessarily indicative of the future
economic viability of nuclear power.
Olkiluoto 3 is a first-of-a-kind, large,
multibillion-dollar power station. Assigning all of the costs
of the first plant to future plants would not be accurate.
Construction costs will be reduced as lessons learned from initial
construction projects are integrated into future ones.
Some of the overruns are simply a reflection of rising labor and
material costs. These increases, which are not unique to the
nuclear industry, would affect any project. Building the 3,200
windmills that would be needed to produce the same amount of
electricity as Olkiluoto 3 will produce would likely suffer
from the same price volatility.
A lack of skilled personnel, shortages of nuclear-qualified
components and materials, and inexperienced vendors and
subcontractors have also slowed progress. Very few reactors have
been ordered over the past three decades, and the industrial base
and skill sets are simply not yet available to support the growing
demand for commercial nuclear power. Although these risks should
have been expected for a project like Olkiluoto 3, they are also
correctable and will be resolved by the market over time.
As backlogs are created by new orders, nuclear suppliers will
invest to expand capacity. For example, Japan Steel Works has
already announced that it will expand its capacity to produce the
large forgings used to manufacture reactor components. It is
the sole supplier of these forgings on the world market. Other
companies have made similar announcements to provide expanded
uranium enrichment, mining, manufacturing, and used-fuel services.
This growth in capacity will eventually meet demand and moderate
some of the inflationary pressures that are driving up costs for
Finland's newest reactor.
Spent Nuclear Fuel
Like nuclear power plants around the world, Finland's reactors
also produce spent nuclear fuel. Finland's four operating reactors
produce about 70 tons of spent fuel annually. America's 104
operating reactors produce about 2,000 tons per year.
Finland's waste management regime, similar to that of the
U.S., is governed by statute that mandates permanent
disposition of all nuclear waste.
Finnish law dictates that its nuclear power producers are
fully responsible for managing spent fuel until final disposition.
The two power companies that operate nuclear power stations in
Finland jointly established Posiva Oy, a third entity to
oversee waste management. Posiva Oy, along with a network
of universities, researchers, and contractors, operates under the
supervision of the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in
researching, developing, and implementing Finland's nuclear waste
Spent fuel is highly radioactive when it is removed from the
reactor. All radioactive materials decay, but while some lose
their radioactivity within fractions of a second, others take
billions of years. However, most stabilize within an
intermediate period. The radioactivity of spent nuclear fuel
falls to about one hundredth of its original levels within a year
and to one thousandth of its original levels within 40 years.
This characteristic makes interim storage an important element
of spent fuel management.
Interim storage is a critical part of Finland's spent nuclear
fuel management regime. Although the United States has a de
facto interim storage system because the federal government
has not fulfilled its legal obligation to take possession of and
dispose of America's spent fuel, it does not fully integrate
interim storage as a part of its spent fuel regime.
In the Finnish system, spent fuel is removed from the reactors
and placed in fuel pools, as is done in the U.S., but then it is
placed in on-site interim storage facilities where it is left to
decay. This has two major advantages.
First, permanent geologic storage is a scarce resource. Although
a geologic storage facility's capacity is often expressed in terms
of volume, the primary limiting factor is heat load. Radioactive
material gives off heat as it decays. The more it has decayed, the
less heat it will give off, allowing more to be stored in any
one place. Thus, allowing the fuel to decay for a few decades at an
interim storage facility would ultimately allow more spent fuel to
be placed in a long-term geologic storage facility.
In the U.S., introducing interim storage would allow far more
flexibility in how to use Yucca Mountain. However, adding
interim storage to the U.S. spent fuel management regime would in
no way diminish the vital role of the Yucca Mountain
repository. Opening Yucca must remain a top U.S. priority.
Second, interim storage frees cooling pool
capacity. When spent fuel rods are removed from the reactors,
they are placed in cooling pools. Once a U.S. reactor's pools are
full, it would have nowhere else to put spent fuel rods and would
essentially be forced to shut down.
This is a problem in the United States, where plants were built
with spent fuel pools under the assumption that the spent fuel rods
would be removed and disposed of off-site. However, the
politics of Yucca Mountain has prevented the U.S. from
executing its spent fuel management strategy as planned. U.S.
plants are facing the real possibility of filling their
cooling pools. Interim storage in the U.S., as is done in Finland,
should be part of America's comprehensive spent fuel management
regime along with permanent geologic storage.
Permanent Geologic Storage
Finland, like the U.S., plans eventually to place its nuclear
waste in a permanent geologic storage facility. Also,
Finland's plan to implement a comprehensive spent fuel
management regime, like that of the U.S., began in the early 1980s.
However, the two countries diverge significantly in their execution
of spent fuel strategies. Most notably, Finland has an approved
plan with national and local support for a permanent geologic
facility, and the U.S. does not.
After spending a decade identifying possible locations, Finland
chose four sites as possible locations for the geologic
facility. Following environmental impact assessments, Posiva
Oy applied in 1999 for permission to move the project forward.
After working with the local community, the government gave
permission to move forward with the project by the following year.
The decision enjoyed broad support in Finland's parliament, which
voted 159 to 3 in favor of the plan. The local council also gave
its support to the project. A construction license application
should be submitted by 2016, with operations ready to commence by
2020. The facility will have a maximum capacity of 4,000 tons of
spent fuel, which is adequate for its current fleet of power
Today, Finland is the only country in the world with an approved
plan to construct a permanent geologic repository. The cost of
constructing, operating, and decommissioning the facility is part
of the price of nuclear-generated electricity.
Although burdened by high up-front capital costs, financial risk,
and difficult politics, Finland recognizes the positive
long-term impact of nuclear power. Not only has Finland begun
constructing a new reactor, but it has an approved waste
disposition plan. Its policy is rational and consistent with the
economic and national interests of the nation.
As the U.S. struggles to develop a productive energy policy, it
should learn from Finland that nuclear power can have an important
role in reconciling the desire to reduce pollution with the
need to remain economically competitive. The U.S. should not
blindly follow Finnish energy policy simply because Finland is
building a reactor. It should, however, recognize the important
role that nuclear power can play in meeting America's energy
requirements and follow the Finnish example of how to move from
talking about nuclear power to actually building nuclear power
Jack Spencer is
Research Fellow in Nuclear Energy in the Thomas A. Roe Institute
for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, "Finland to Make Decision
to Build Sixth Nuke by 2011."
The 3,200 windmills number assumes that each wind turbine can
produce 1.5 megawatts and has a capacity factor of 33 percent.