The Baltic Course  

The new nuke: Finland's complicated choice

By Inna Rogatchi, Rogatchi Productions & Communications, 2002

Indecisiveness for over a decade

Many of the world's energy issues are more or less political, but rarely can they be found as highly political as the issue on nuclear power plants. During recent years in the European Union the issue has even defined politics of entire governments for both Sweden and Germany. The current Swedish government, having undergone elections in September this year, undertook a rather bold step several years ago that had no precedents at the time - they officially adopted a policy to refuse any further building of nuclear stations at all. Soon after, the newly elected German government with a large presence of the Green Party tried to do the same. They could not repeat the Swedish model on the issue, but nevertheless, serious restrictions on future nuclear stations were imposed.

Finland is not an exception here, both in the long-discussed issue of further development for the nuclear power sector, and on attempts by the Finnish Green Party also previously part of the current coalition government, to use their position to try and make a principal negative decision on the issue once and for all. As now the Finnish Green Party has left the government in early June, one can conclude that they have failed in this task. In early June the Finnish government and then later the parliament passed a decision on building a new nuclear power plant, the country's fifth.

The road to this decision was long and complicated. Two previous Finnish governments during the entire previous decade and even more could not decide on the issue. The technical and economical sides of the issue were present all the time: Finland is badly in need of more energy. More than a decade ago, the Finnish government was about to take the decision on building the new nuke, but publicity after Chernobyl and increasingly more awful truth becoming available on this tragedy made any further positive decision on a new nuclear plant tasteless, to say the least. Besides, the worrisome fact was that both Finland and Sweden experienced direct disastrous consequences of the Chernobyl accident: there has been a clear rise in different kinds of cancer among the populations, with a high proportion of children. Regarding certain types of cancer, the number of people falling ill jumped up to 8 times in comparison to the normal situation. So, any government would have no nerve to bring the issue up even for discussion in a situation like this, let alone pushing the issue through parliament.

This is exactly what happened in Finland more than a decade ago. The question on the new nuclear plant has been just silently dropped from the political agenda, although a Russian project for the new plant had already been prepared. This would continue the line with the Russian-built Loviisa nuclear plant, which both sides regard as a success. Russian state agency Atomstroiexport in the late 1980s made also another project especially for Finland, as current head of Atomstroiexport Viktor Kozlov told us recently. He also participated in the building of Loviisa, and spent some years in Finland. "The paradox and irony of the situation is that the new project we made specifically for Finland, after having experience with the Loviisa plant, and after getting familiar with Finnish specifics. But our project has not been realized in Finland, as the entire issue was sort of disappearing from Finnish politics as such. We were waiting for some time, and after a while when no progress on the decision had been seen, we won a tender with this project in China, and now we are building there. So, China will have the Finnish-designed plant", said Mr Kozlov meaning a big project under way in Tanwan.

However, there was an attempt to go on with the building of the fifth nuclear plant. The parliament voted on the matter in 1993, with a negative result. More than half of its members were against the idea.

After president Martti Ahtisaari replaced president Mauno Koivisto in the mid-1990s, the official line was quite clear: this issue will be not considered during this government's term. And they had quite a serious reason for this. During this period a fierce public discussion took place over many years on the practice of transporting nuclear waste from Finland back to Russia (for the Mayak processing plant in the region of Chelyabinsk, and some other places). The international campaign against such practices - which were kept in secrecy for many years - has become quite loud and powerful, with participation by not only Green Peace International and its branches in Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Germany, but also the international media, and top politicians. As a result of unprecedented pressure, the Finnish government did open some of the documents on these transportation plans, and passed an official decision to stop sending nuclear waste back to Russia, and start building their own waste place for storing waste here in Finland. The atmosphere was so hot around the issue that the last thing any Finnish minister could think of was to bring up the issue of building a new plant.

The current Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Liipponen decided to take the responsibility for this uneasy matter only now, towards the end of his government's term (Finnish parliament elections are scheduled for Spring 2003). During previous years the line of the government on the nuclear plant issue was the same as that adopted a few years before by its predecessors: "this would be an issue for the next government".  But prior to the governmental consideration of the issue in May 2002, Mr Liipponen made himself quite clear: "Finland is dependable on energy supplies for 70%; and the biggest part of that supply we are importing from Russia. To stop this unnecessary and very tight dependency, we ought to build a source of energy ourselves. And in my opinion, nuclear energy is the most sophisticated and cheapest way to do it".

The Finnish decision: pros and cons

After the government votes in support for building the new nuke plant (the vote was far from unanimous), the next step was discussion in parliament, which was televised live. Never before in modern Finnish history, the country trade-marked for its "consensus-looking" mentality did any issue evoke such dramatic division within political parties and institutions themselves or cause such rigid opposition.

The planned Loviisa power plant

The planned Loviisa power plant

To start with the leading governing Social Democratic Party: while the Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Liipponen was clearly in favor of the next nuclear plant, the Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, with his historical "anti-war" inclinations and other left-wing protest movements, was stubbornly against it. The dispute between two leading figures of the same party within the government was aggravated by an unusually harsh context within the Social Democratic Party in a struggle for leadership. The elections for a new leader of the Finnish social democrats took place also simultaneously within the final stages of the nuke issue. If Mr Tuomioja won and elected as the new party chairman, this would certainly have opened way for him as the next possible prime-minister, as pointed out by Finnish political commentators. This would mean quite serious possible complications for the entire energy policy. Uncharacteristically for Finnish political life, opposition of two leaders had become very real. It was very visible, and the public would hear quite opposite opinions on top issues, like energy and nuclear plant including, from the two most senior government figures. Mr Tuomioja managed to get some support among the Social Democratic party leadership; and although Finnish president Tarja Halonen did keep neutrality over the future leader of her own party, there is no secret in Finland that the president and the foreign minister are very close soul-mates since their youth. However, the authority of Paavo Liipponen and his support among a prevailing number of grass-route members of the party did provide him quite a convincing victory over  the party's leadership.

The next stage for accepting the decision in principal was the much anticipated debates in the Finnish parliament. Surprisingly, although the scene was quite sharp and unusual for the calm and polite style of Finnish politicians, there was not really a big fight. As the Finnish political commentators noted, "the main battle had been in the corridors". Never before had each and every vote of 200 Finnish MPs been waited so much. Never before had those institutions lobbying the building of the plant ever work as hard to win every single extra vote among the MPs. Among those main forces are the Finnish energy industry leaders and the Finnish trade unions which are very powerful in Finland, and which are naturally looking for benefits for the Finnish producers and labor force in this project. The polls showing how the MPs were about to vote were reported by the Finnish media almost daily, and the country was following it as if it were some breaking news. From the changes in the polls, the real fight for every single vote was clearly visible.

On the eve of the actual vote in parliament, between 8 and 10 votes remained decisive in the final result, - such was the clear division in parliament. The result of the vote was 107 in favor of building the new plant. Ironically, this is exactly the amount of MPs who voted against the plant 9 years before. This reflected situation in the country properly. Finland is very well known for giving highest priority to environmental issues, and several generations of people have grown up focusing on this. The Green Party, although not as strong as in Germany, nevertheless was getting more and more support among voters from one election after another during the past decade. The current government was the first one that the Finnish Green Party had become part of.

Finnish political observers did note with a pinch of irony that the Finnish Greens, despite fierce verbal opposition to the idea of a new nuclear plant, did not really want to leave the government right up to the very last moment. They voted to leave in protest over the undertaken decision only after the decision was passed by parliament. Many of their supporters expected their party's leaders to fight more actively, and to leave the government well before the final stages. The temperature round the plant was so high that already after the vote, one of the Finnish MPs publicly accused her colleagues of participating in the "fixed" vote, and a parliamentary inquiry, the first of the sort in Finland, was launched.

Finally, the Finnish decision to approve the building of the plant put Finland at odds with the European Union because of the negative doctrine on the further development of nuclear energy that had been adopted by the EU. "Now, after the Finnish vote, the trickiness of the situation is that on the one hand, the EU is strongly demanding from candidate-country Lithuania to shut down its Ignalina plant, and we know how much Lithuania is dependable from the energy produced by Ignalina. The EU is making this demand almost a precondition for Lithuanian membership to the EU; and on the other hand, EU member Finland, all of the sudden votes for developing the nuclear sector, by building a huge new plant. If the EU does have a policy on this issue, the manipulation of these two hands simply cannot co-exist. There must be some logic and consistency in the EU's own policies first", observed a Brussels-based political analyst from the US Geo-Strategy Institute.

The first steps

The tender for the new nuclear plant would be called in September 2002 by the private Finnish TWO concern which is the main contractor for the plant. As the tender had not yet started when this article was written, only potential participants could be named. Russian Atomstroiexport is naturally one of them, as they had been waiting for the moment for over a decade. But today the situation in Finland is dramatically different from the times when the Soviet Union had no contenders in Finland for constructing nuclear plants - in president Kekkonen's time there was no question about it. Wisely enough, current leaders of the Russian company do realize that the time of their exclusiveness in Finland has long gone. They have rather healthily and adequately taken on the realities of the changed world, and preparing themselves for tough rivalry over the plant. "We are well prepared because we did the project for the new Finnish plant more than ten years ago. But we do know that we have to prove our claim, both technically and economically. There surely will be other possibly quite strong candidates. It's not so often that a new nuclear plant is to be built in Europe",  - says Victor Kozlov, general director of Atomstroiexport.

The Russian side has not wasted any time, and according to reports by the Finnish leading Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, "Russian energy minister Alexander Rumjanzev has declared his country's interest in helping Finland to build the plant during negotiations between Russian and Finnish Prime ministers Mikhail Kasjanov and Paavo Lipponen in St Petersburg" (the meeting took place in June 2002). As for the reaction of Lipponen, according to the Helsingin Sanomat report, "he was not surprised by the Russian initiative on the issue, and did make clear to the Russian side that a decision on the tender will be taken completely by the private company TWO, not by the government".

Among other potential candidates, according to preliminary information, might be such giants as General Electric, another leading company, the American Westinghouse Company and its Swedish partner, and well-known French company Framatom, in possible cooperation with Germany's Siemens. With players like that, Finland' s TWO company is facing quite an uneasy task of picking the winner.

All main characteristics of the new plant, like its capacity and type of reactor, or price of project, will be decided on during the tender. At the moment, the expected range of the reactor varies form 1,000 to 1,500 megawatts.  The plant is expected to start producing energy by 2009.

August 2002