The great atomic bluff

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Constant hold-ups, skyrocketing costs, faulty construction…Finland’s new Olkiluoto reactor, touted as the great white hope for Europe’s nuclear sector, is looking more and more like a great white elephant – and casting a fat black shadow over the whole industry.

A key arena for the energy challenges of the future lies in Finland, where a third reactor is being built at the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant (for €3 billion). It’s the first reactor to be built in Europe since the Chernobyl catastrophe back in April 1986. For the French utility Areva, the world leader in the atomic energy sector, this isn’t just a mammoth project, but the showcase for a nuclear renaissance. Fitted out with a “third-generation” European pressurised reactor (EPR), the Finnish facility is to serve as a test house for the nuclear lobby, which has been making a rapid and unlooked-for comeback lately.

But everything seems to be going wrong on the site. What with hitches and glitches galore, the commissioning of the facility, initially slated for 2009, has been put off to 2011 – though 2013 is more likely in light of the latest reports. What’s worse, its innumerable defects have been denounced by various international NGOs, starting with Greenpeace, which has made Olkiluoto the main hobbyhorse in its campaign against the tremendous threats the nuclear renaissance poses to mankind. Since work started on the plant four years ago, Greenpeace has counted over a thousand “incidents” in construction and on-site security breaches. In spite of this litany of errors, however, the population remains undeterred, contrary to all expectations: over 55% are still in favour of atomic power. That’s paradoxical, seeing as in 1986 the Finnish were among the first Europeans to get a chance to watch the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl float past above their houses.

Nuclear power doesn’t reduce CO2 emissions
Panicking at the portended demise of fossil fuels, trapped by the climate crisis and their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, one government after another has been announcing plans to jump-start its nuclear industry again. Declared clinically dead after Chernobyl, nuclear is coming back to life all over the continent – except in France, where it has always been going strong and has no need of resurrection. Just take a look around: Great Britain is planning to build at least two dozen new reactors. Germany, which adopted a plan to phase out nuclear energy for good around the turn of the millennium under the instigation of chancellor Schröder’s pink-and-green team, is now U-turning and soon to “withdraw from its nuclear withdrawal”. Over in Bern, the country’s main utilities are calling on the Swiss federal government to put up three new reactors. Even in Italy, with its deep-seated aversion to atomic energy, Silvio Berlusconi has just decided to reverse course with the help of French nuclear know-how. And what of the United States, Russia, India and China? All told, between the atomic plants currently under construction, on the drawing board or on the table, over two hundred reactors could be shooting up out of the ground over the next two decades! And the Ukraine, Chernobyl’s proud homeland, has now hammered out plans for 22 additional reactors.

Now that the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions has become a self-evident imperative, nuclear energy, for the first time in a long time, claims to have a vital edge in the ideological fight over the future of power production: it hardly gives off any CO2. And yet, “nuclear power doesn’t help reduce CO2 emissions,” argues Lauri Myllyvirta, a young Finn who gained a little fame by chaining himself to the top of a big red crane at the Olkiluoto site for five days along with five other Greenpeace activists. “First off, consider how long construction takes and the amount of energy needed to complete it. Factor in the ecological catastrophe of uranium mines. Factor in the hundreds of thousands of miles travelled by lorries hauling nuclear fuel rods from where they’re produced to the reactors, and from the reactors to the reprocessing plants. Then from there to the temporary sites for nuclear waste storage. And to the lorry convoys you’ve got to add the military or police escort vehicles, because you don’t cart uranium around the way you do coal.…"

Nuclear commits unborn generations
Petteri Tiippana, deputy director of Stuk, the Finnish atomic watchdog authority, paints a chilling picture of the situation on the site. “The problem with Areva, which is ultimately the same for all the Finns, too, is that the competence has got completely lost along the way since the last nuclear plant was built in Europe, over 20 years ago. I would add that EPR is a new type of reactor: which is to say that Finland has offered to serve as a testing ground. I have the impression Areva is learning by doing on the job. They were much too optimistic, made promises they couldn’t keep, and went too fast because they wanted a flashy global showcase.”

OL-3 has a life expectancy of 60 years, according to TVO, the Finnish electric company and owner of Olkiluoto that ordered the EPR. If the reactor goes on steam in 2013, it will be decommissioned around 2073. Except in the unlikely event of a miracle, Lauri Myllyvirta and Petteri Tiippana will be long gone, along with the author of this article, by the time the facility is dismantled for good, which is scheduled for 2120. Of all the existing sources of energy, nuclear is the only one that commits as yet unborn generations for such a long time hence, as we still have no solution to the problem of the permanent storage of nuclear waste.

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