Progress on Finnish Nuclear Reactor Lags

The Finns are building the world's biggest nuclear power station, but it's well behind schedule due to construction problems. Regulators say the industry seems to have forgotten how to manage nuclear construction.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

With all the worry about global warming, the people of Finland think they have an answer - nuclear power. What's to be the world's biggest nuclear power plant is under construction on Finland's southwest coast. It's the first new commercial reactor project in the West in more than a decade.

NPR's Emily Harris was there.

EMILY HARRIS: The Finns are building a series of concrete circles inside a square. Up five flights of narrow metal steps, there's an opening in the square outer walls and entry into the massive reactor's future home. Inside, men in bright yellow or blue hardhats are dwarfed by rebar reaching up from curving concrete walls toward the open sky. The CEO of TVO, the Finnish conglomerate that owns the power plant, says this could well mark the revival of nuclear power in the West.

Mr. PERTTI SIMOLA (President and CEO, TVO): Why not? nuclear is competitive, very safe, and it's an environmentally friendly way to generate electricity; no CO2 emissions.

HARRIS: Pertti Simola is chatting over lunch in the Alpha conference room at TVO headquarter; that's Alpha as in particle, in honor of the business. Other meeting rooms here are named Beta and Gamma. His arguments in favor of nuclear power - that it's safe, economical and environmentally friendly - are rejected by Lauri Myllyvirta of Greenpeace. But Myllyvirta does agree that efforts to limit carbon emissions in line with the international Kyoto Agreement helped swing parliamentary approval for this plant five years ago.

Mr. LAURI MYLLYVIRTA (Activist, Greenpeace): When the decision to build it was made, there was a huge hurry to be able to use it to reach Kyoto targets. And this is the first time that climate arguments have been used for a nuclear power plant.

HARRIS: But the reactor won't help Finland cut its greenhouse gases right away. There have been a number of construction delays, including one due to just a little bit of water.

Mr. PATRICK TIFANUS(ph) (Finish Regulator): There was too much water in the cement.

HARRIS: That is Patrick Tifanus(ph), Finland's lead regulator overseeing the plant construction. The cement - really concrete - he's talking about is an enormous single slab stretching 10 feet under the reactor. After a long investigation, regulators concluded the slab meets almost all original specifications and is safe enough. But a 70-page report suggests an under-qualified subcontractor won the concrete bid on price. Tifanus seems especially irritated that the subcontractor didn't get any training in required procedures when building nuclear power plants.

Mr. TIFANUS: It's a nuclear power plant and not a conventional power plant. And that gives some extra requirements for them, and the main basic things is that they follow the procedures, and if you don't know what to do, you stop your works and ask.

HARRIS: The reactor is based on a French design with new safety features, such as a tub to contain a meltdown and walls build to withstand an airplane crash. Areva of France, a world leader in the nuclear business, is building the reactor. Both Areva and TVO (unintelligible) say delays are not because of the plant's new features, but because the industry is out of practice.

Mr. MYLLYVIRTA: No new nuclear power stations have been built. So the subcontractors, they have somehow disappeared, the working procedures and the quality requirements with their nuclear projects.

HARRIS: TVO is already preparing to ask permission to build another reactor of the same size. Public opinion in Finland has migrated from around two-thirds opposed to nuclear power in the early 1990s, to about half in favor now. Penti Maska(ph), a former energy adviser to Finland's parliament, opposes nuclear power on many grounds. But his bottom line is fear of an accident, even though he believes Finland's new reactor will most likely be safe.

Mr. PENTI MASKA (Former Energy Adviser): It's more probable that there will be no harm. But there still is that possibility that there will be the catastrophic accident. And if that happened, a great part of Finland will be contaminated. It will be end of the Finnish culture. I'm not willing to take that kind of risk.

HARRIS: Finns, to some degree, cultivate an image as dispassionate and reserved. But exchanges over nuclear energy have gotten nasty, including a blacklist of nuclear opponents put together by the lobby group Finnish Youth for Nuclear Energy. Board Member Kari Kosista(ph) says that was just a joke. They are stuck in the past, he says.

Mr. KARI KOSISTA (Finnish Youth for Nuclear Energy): They are always against this development, and if we do not take care of our competitiveness in the world markets, then China and India and so on makes us unemployed.

HARRIS: India leads the world in the number of nuclear power plants under construction, seven. China is currently building five, with dozens more proposed.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Olkiluoto, Finland.

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