Article 2014 The Year in Review

Energy independence or not? Finland's unlucky love affair with nuclear

The Finnish Parliament is voting on a new nuclear plant, owned partly by the Russian Rosatom. But the Nordic country has huge potential for renewables, and energy policies should be directed to unleash that

Greenpeace activists climbed the building site of the Olkiluoto 3 plant in a protest in 2007. Photo credit: Greenpeace Nordic.

In the coming weeks, the Finnish Parliament will vote on a decision-in-principle for a nuclear plant. Nuclear power is always a hot topic politically, but the latest project, approved by the government on September 18th, is even more controversial with Rosatom, a Russian state-owned company, holding a 34% stake in it.

According to a poll by Finland’s biggest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat in March, 52% of Finns are for building more nuclear power, but this goes down to 33% if the permission to build it is granted to the company Fennovoima that has pledged co-operation with Rosatom.

Fennovoima was originally given permission for the plant in 2010, but since the German energy giant E.ON withdrew from the project, the new ownership structure needed to be reapproved. The process for permission for a nuclear plant is lengthy, and there is still scope for rejection: After the government’s approval, the project is proposed to the Parliament, which votes on the decision-in-principle. If that goes through, Fennovoima can apply for a building permission by next summer.

In the wake of the government’s approval, the Green party resigned from the cabinet. But objections have came not only from the domestic sphere: the decision also runs contra the EU sanctions to Russia. The European Parliament in September urged “EU countries to cancel planned energy sector agreements with Russia” in the most recent attempt to penalise the country for its involvement in the Ukrainian crisis.

The ghost of ‘Finlandisation’

When the Green party stepped down from the government, its leader Ville Niinistö accused the country of ‘Finlandisation’, a term that put most politicians on the defensive. The Cold War term refers to the influence of a stronger country on its weaker neighbour and was invented by a German newspaper in the 70s to characterise Finland’s foreign policy.

Niinistö said to the Financial Times in September: “We are putting ourselves where our foreign policy is not led by our values but instead by our carefulness in trying to do what the Russians want… This is taking us back to how it was in the 1970s.”

“There is a sense of Finlandisation here. We are giving Russians the very leverage they are looking for with the West and the EU. This puts us in a very vulnerable position… Bluntly speaking, it is totally bewildering that the rest of the government thinks this is OK.”

Russia is not only an important trading partner for Finland: the countries share a 1,300 km land border (830 miles), which makes the country’s leadership careful to not upset the mighty neighbour. In the past, this manifest itself as silencing critique of the Soviet Union, but the spirit is still visible in political debates over defence and Nato which Finland is not a member of.

With some suggesting EU-Russia relations are at the brink of a new Cold War, the need to follow the big neighbour’s activities has increased again. This year, Russia’s violations of the air space of the Nordic and Baltic countries have become increasingly common.

In that environment, increasing co-operation with Russian companies in the energy sector seems unwise. But it fits well with the tendency of neoliberalism to pretend that the economic and the political are separate spheres.

Reliance on nuclear despite vast potential for renewables

Finland’s decision to increase nuclear power also contrasts sharply to many other European countries’ turn away from the risky power source, consolidated by the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

Germany decided to abandon nuclear power completely by 2022. Denmark is heading the same way, and better on track to achieving its targets: whilst Germany’s emissions have actually increased because of emissions from coal, Denmark is on the road to produce 100% of its energy from renewables by 2050.

Energy production from renewable sources has also increased in Finland. The target for the increase is from 28.5% to 38% between 2005 and 2020, a figure in line with EU targets but moderate considering the potential.

“Finland has the best per capita resources for renewable energy in the entire EU. By 2030 we could rid ourselves from coal, peat and nuclear,” Energy campaigner Jehki Härkönen from Greenpeace Nordic says. These include high potential for wind energy due to the long coastline; a large amount of forest biomass; and solar radiation levels in southern Finland similar to those in northern Germany.

Härkönen sees that the biggest obstacle for renewables in Finland are political. “Everything from energy strategies to infrastructure is built on the assumption that nuclear would cover over half of energy production. At the same time there haven’t been increases in nuclear capacity since 1981 because the projects are too expensive.”

Indeed, looking at the Olkiluoto 3 reactor currently under construction in southwest Finland it becomes clear that building nuclear plants is no quick fix to energy needs. Originally supposed to produce electricity in 2009, the reactor is now estimated to start working in 2018. During the delays, it has doubled in cost, and the consortium TVO and the French contractor Areva both claim compensation from each other for the €3bn overspend. Finnish authorities have also expressed concerns about safety during the construction process.

This means that even if it was a clean energy source, nuclear would be unlikely to respond to the urgency posed by climate change; the Fennovoima-Rosatom plant is estimated to produce energy by 2024. Until then, it would be a massive construction site requiring raw materials, and even after that, the uranium needed for the plant would have to be mined.

“The aim of energy policy should be to satisfy the needs of the entire humankind in a way the planet can bear,” Härkönen from Greenpeace puts it. “At the moment part of the world’s population is suffering from energy poverty and another part is consuming so much that we are destroying irreplaceable ecological resources and ultimately ourselves if we continue on the same path.”

“Nuclear power is not an answer to these needs because it’s a centralised and capital-intensive mode of energy production that needs a stable and safe infrastructure,” he continues. “At the same time, there is the risk of radioactive materials’ spreading and the waste problem that has still not been solved.”

Denmark shows alternatives exist

To find alternative ways to cover energy needs, one doesn’t need to go far. Denmark, also with a population of roughly 5.5 million, decided on its focus on renewables long ago.

During the oil crisis in the 70s, discussions on building nuclear started in the country, but a small group of innovators and activists decided there had to be another way and started building wind turbines themselves. Successful as they were, in 1985 the Danish government abandoned plans for nuclear and decided to focus on renewables and energy efficiency instead. They subsidised investment and provided tax credits for households that participated in energy production. This created a boom of co-operatives that invested in communal wind power: during the next decade, 2,100 wind power co-ops were formed. In 2001, 86% of Danish wind turbines were built by co-operatives, and the percentage has declined since only because the number of private investors gone up.

This energy policy has shaped public opinion to be largely in favour of wind energy: 96% of the Danish public supports political measures to increase wind power industry, and 85% would have wind turbines in their own backyard.

In Finland, it is not only about energy production either. After leaving the government, the Green party published their own model for meeting the same energy needs by 2024 as the Fennovoima-Rosatom plant would. In addition to increasing use of renewables, the recommendations include measures to improve energy efficiency and to level the demand for energy, because the high demand for heating in cold winter months means that the capacity for energy production has to meet those peaks.

The future of energy: local is beautiful

But there are also incentives for localised, small-scale energy production in Finland. Activists from the transition movement point me towards social media groups where people share experiences and information about solar power in their local areas. Lähienergialiitto, the Association for Local Energy, campaigns for decentralised energy solutions through lobbying to bring down political barriers - often localised energy production initiatives stumble upon bureaucracy or high costs, which contrasts starkly to the subsidies received by fossil fuel and nuclear industries. Still, DIY energy solutions are becoming increasingly possible: the world price of solar panels has gone down by 80% since 2008.

Globally, energy co-operatives have vast potential to bring control over energy to communities’ own hands, and enable them to respond to climate change in a way politicians who often have close ties to the fossil fuel industry are unable or unwilling to do.

Finland’s unlucky love affair with nuclear also shows the inevitable political nature of large-scale energy projects. Russia has been outspoken about intending to increase its power over its neighbours through energy exports, but the geopolitical dynamics of energy are visible all around the world. In this context, the potential for a more peaceful world decentralised renewable energy production creates is enormous.

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