Finland approves first nuclear reactor since Chernobyl

  • 2002-05-29
  • Paal Aarsaether

Finland's Parliament has approved the construction of a fifth nuclear reactor, the first such plant to be authorized in Western Europe or North America since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

The plan angered environmentalists and bucks the trend in Europe, where a number of countries are preparing to phase out nuclear power.

MPs voted 107 in favor and 92 against the proposal on May 24.

"We are very happy with this decision," Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen said after the vote.

"We will be less dependent on imports - now 70 percent of our energy comes from abroad - or a single source of energy," Lipponen said.

Currently, 28 percent of the Nordic country's power supply comes from nuclear facilities. With the new reactor, this figure would rise to 35 percent, "where it should be" to secure diversity, Lipponen said.

"This is not a vote for nuclear power, but for diversity," he stressed.

"Now we will also be able to curb (greenhouse gas) emissions" and "be better able to reach our economic growth targets," he concluded.

Experts have increasingly warned that Finland - a relatively flat country devoid of any natural resources apart from vast forest land - will face power shortages if no new power plants are built.

The Green League, a partner in Lipponen's five-party left-right coalition, said it would decide at its party congress next week to leave the government as a result of the vote.

"The decision of the Parliament was very strongly against sustainable development, and it puzzles me how it is possible to make such a decision today when the sustainable alternative is clearer than ever," Environment Minister and Green League member Satu Hassi said.

"Instead of taking a step backwards, we could have had a great possibility to give a boost to renewable energy and Finnish high-tech solutions using renewable energy sources," she added.

The Finnish decision has received a storm of criticism from international environmentalists and runs counter to current European trends where many countries, notably Germany and Sweden, plan to phase out nuclear power.

"I can imagine that for many people outside Finland it is very strange how Finland, with its good reputation in environmental issues and one of the leaders in high-tech development, can make such a decision," Hassi conceded.

The Parliament's vote marks the first time a new nuclear reactor has been authorized in Western Europe or North America since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, according to Peer de Rijk of the Amsterdam-based anti-nuclear group World Information Service on Energy.

"It's disappointing, and it sends an important signal," de Rijk said.

De Rijk said Finland's image as a key advocate of environmental awareness was now damaged, although he said he did not think it was likely other countries would follow its example.

"It's consensus in Europe now that nuclear power belongs to the past and is being phased out, and we didn't expect this from a country like Finland," de Rijk added.

However, energy shortages and international accords obliging countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions have forced governments to reconsider the benefits of nuclear power.

Lacking viable alternatives, some countries such as Sweden have opted to extend the life of their nuclear plants from 40 to 50 years instead of building new ones, thereby also increasing the profitability of nuclear power.

European energy commissioner Loyola de Palacio welcomed Finland's decision, saying it should help reopen the debate in Europe about energy sources.

Palacio said nuclear energy has almost been a "taboo" subject, but it may now change. "Finland has changed the trend in the EU for the past decade of not building nuclear reactors", she said.

Palacio said it was important to keep the nuclear option open if Europe wants to meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions under the Kyoto Protocol and ensure continued sustainable economic growth.

Finland already has two nuclear plants with two reactors each, built in the late 1970s near the towns of Eurajoki, 250 kilometers northwest of Helsinki, and Loviisa, 80 kilometers east of the capital.

Both towns are currently lobbying to become the home of the new 1,000- to 1,600-megawatt reactor, to go into commercial use by 2010, since it will provide much-needed jobs and tax revenues to the communities.

The new reactor is set to have an operating life of 60 years.

Last year, Finland also became the first country in the world to decide on a permanent underground storage facility for its nuclear waste, to be situated by the Eurajoki plant.

A reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine exploded in April 1986, releasing a huge cloud of radioactivity over a large part of Europe. Nearly six million people continue to live in contaminated zones, according to UN figures.