As Finland Builds Another Nuclear Plant, a Remote City Flourishes

Sunday, November 16, 2008

RAUMA, Finland — The cafe where Paivi Alanko-Rehelma serves coffee and smoked fish stands practically in the shadow of a sprawling building site on the island of Olkiluoto where Finland is erecting a nuclear power plant, the island’s third, and Finland’s fifth in the last 30 years.

Rauma is about 10 miles from Olkiluoto, a nuclear plant site.

Like many of her neighbors who have grown accustomed to nuclear energy, Ms. Alanko-Rehelma picks no bones with the new reactor. “It’s now safe, it saves nature, it’s cheaper,” she said, pouring a visitor a steaming cup of coffee.

No one is certain when the plant, which has been plagued by construction delays, will be finished. But whenever it does go into operation, the reactor will be a new cog in the works of Finland’s national energy policy, which seeks to diversify the country’s sources of energy and reduce its historical reliance on Russia for cheap electricity.

The plant is also part of a global trend, as nuclear power’s prospects rise amid concerns about the warming effect of carbon dioxide emissions to generate electricity.

The Finns are going first class, building what is called a European Pressurized Reactor, the world’s latest model, which is billed as the safest and most powerful nuclear reactor ever designed. It is the product of a consortium of French and German engineering companies.

It is not as if anyone around this wooded region a three-hour drive northwest of Helsinki is marching in protest, spraying antinuclear graffiti or hampering construction work. To the contrary, the construction of the power plant is producing a modest economic boom.

Take this port city of pastel-colored wooden homes about 10 miles south of Olkiluoto. The nearly 4,000 migrant laborers from more than 30 countries, including Poland and Estonia, working at the new power plant have lifted business in stores in downtown Rauma and made possible the opening last year of two new shopping malls on the edge of town.

Local building contractors have been buoyed by orders to carry out some of the reactor work. Moreover, taxes paid by the migrant workers and French and German engineers who have come to the city bring in more than $2.5 million a year.

“A journalist called recently from Helsinki to ask how much longer we can delay completion of the reactor,” Jaakko Hirvonsalo, managing director of the local chamber of commerce, said with a laugh. “Locally, we’re doing well.”

The delays, however, were no joke; parts of the huge reactor shield, now about 90 feet high, had to be dismantled and rebuilt because of faulty welding and poor cement work. The Finns blame the delays on the French reactor builder, Areva, which subcontracted work to Polish companies to cut costs.

The French and their German partners blame the Finns for the delays, pointing to the glacial pace of construction reviews by the Finnish nuclear safety authority. Wherever the blame truly lies, the reactor’s start-up date has been pushed back by at least two years, to 2011, and the estimated cost increased to nearly $6 billion from an original $3.8 billion.

Now, the French are seeking the help of a Swedish arbitrator to settle their differences with the Finns. As for the delay, “It’s not a race,” said Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier, a spokesman for Areva in Paris. “Don’t forget, it will operate for 60 years.”

Yet he acknowledged that, in some ways, Olkiluoto was a test, since it was the first attempt to build a pressurized water reactor. “It’s the first of its kind,” he said. “You cannot go into a hangar and make a model to test. And yet you have to have a test.”

Beneath the surface, people in Rauma are weighing the costs and benefits. And not all are happy with the result.

“As long as everything is O.K., it’s O.K., but there are problems and risks,” said Janne Koski, director of the city’s art museum, which sponsors regular exhibitions of art from the Baltic region. Asked whether people ignored the risks because of the benefits, he replied: “That is not exactly so. Of course, many people are working there, at the reactor site. It’s about economy and finance.”

Not that Rauma is in dire need of economic stimulus. The city has a thriving shipbuilding industry and paper mills, and several large wood processing companies, a Finnish specialty, have factories here. Large foreign investments have been attracted in recent years from South Korea and Australia.

Rauma has never had an accident like that at Chernobyl, almost 900 miles to the southeast in Northern Ukraine, but even people who are most comfortable with nuclear reactors acknowledge that they affect the environment.

Ms. Alanko-Rehelma, whose husband operates two fishing boats in the waters around the reactors, said that their cooling systems warm the water near Olkiluoto island.

“That is not good for some kinds of fish,” she said. “But good for others, like trout.”

The only large-scale resistance to nuclear energy in Finland comes from Greenpeace, which cites the hazard of radioactivity and the siphoning of money from investment in alternative carbon-free energy sources, like wind, sun and tides.

“It’s far too risky and hazardous,” Lauri Myllyvirta, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said by phone from Helsinki.

The United Nations lists Rauma as a World Heritage site because of its large stock of charming 17th- and 18th-century wooden homes. The World Heritage designation is meant to help preserve historic sites, though income from tourism remains meager, Mr. Miettinen said.

“It’s mostly Finns, and some from Germany and Italy,” he said. But he did not think it was the cluster of nuclear power plants that was keeping people away. “A great many people think nuclear energy is good for Rauma and its industry,” he said.

The first nuclear reactors at Olkiluoto are now about 30 years old, said Pasi Katajamaki, editor of the local newspaper, Lansi Suomi. “We’re very used to it,” he said. ‘’When you have something near you, you simply grow accustomed to it.”

Posted in |