Controversial Rosatom reactor build in Finland gets delayed

Pyhäjoki A computerised image of the proposed nuclear power plant in Pyhäjoki. (Photo: Fennovoima)

Difficulties Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom is having keeping up with Finnish safety standards has once again delayed construction of a controversial reactor the company is planing to building in the country’s west.

The €6 billion reactor build features Rosatom’s flagship export, the VVER-1200. The company has marketed the reactor aggressively; offering some countries lavish credit deals to build it, and claiming it has cultivated construction agreements with dozens more countries on top.

But the new reactor line has been greeted warily, seen by some as a safety hazard and others as a tool of Moscow’s political influence bleeding into Western Europe.

The VVER-1200 project in Pyhäjoki, northwestern Finland, has drawn criticism of both strains. The plant has long provoked the ire of Finnish environmentalists, led by the Green Party, and politicians have said the reactor thwarts sanctions against Russia for its 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine.

femminova reactor Another computer generated image of the Pyhäjoki plant and its VVER-1200 reactor. (Source: Fennovoima)

Other VVER-1200 projects underway in Hungary and Belarus have been seen as buttressing right wing governments friendly to Vladimir Putin, and political opponents of the reactor deal have said Helsinki is risking a deal with the devil, the costs of which could easily spin out of control.

Fennovoima, the Russian-Finnish consortium building the reactor confirmed earlier this week the delays it was having in getting a license and said it was unsure if that would push back the reactor’s projected start date of 2024.

The company issued a statement saying that: “The delays in the delivery of documents are in our view mainly due to a slower than expected organizing of the project, as well as lack of resources in the project management.”

It added Rosatom had recently moved more employees to Helsinki to address the planning problems.

For its part, Rosatom told Reuters it had “mobilized all the resources, tools and experts necessary to be able to prepare the license documentation on time” and added the original 2018 deadline was still feasible, although it recognized more time might be required.

The project has faced obstacles as many of its original investors have opted out in the past years, including Germany’s E.ON and Swedish metals firm Boliden.

Seeing an opening to build another VVER-1220, Rosatom agreed in 2013 to take a 34 percent stake in the build and to supply and finance it. The Finnish parliament finally approved the reactor’s building permit in 2014.

Bellona’s Oskar Njaa, who analyzes the Russian nuclear industry, says Rosatom’s selling point for its VVER-1200 reactors is the promise of it being a one-size-fits-all nuclear answer.

But this has its problems – while a design can be standardized, the safety priorities of the region it’s built in cannot. That, in turn, leads to tweaking – and further delays.

“This delay illustrates one of the main reasons that nuclear reactor projects often become more expensive than planned,” said Njaa. “Reactor construction tends to be delayed, amongst other reasons due to the fact that every reactor has to be built according to the site’s specific properties.”

There could be more tweaks to come. The first model of the VVER-1200 reactor, which was built at the Novovoronezh Nuclear Power Plant in Russia, bounced off the grid last November, during a test of its emergency systems.

It was an embarrassing development for the floor model of the flagship export, and Rosenergoatom, Russia’s nuclear utility, kept the incident hushed up for days. The incident triggered a review of the reactor’s generator system, but by then, Rosatom had already signed its deal with Finland.

The safety of the Fennovoima project has long been on Bellona’s mind. Bellona general manager Nils Bøhmer said in 2014 that“We have previously seen that Russian nuclear power plants put less focus on safety information than similar western reactors.”

He added that, “Finland will be more bound up with Russia as it will be dependent on Russian nuclear technology.”

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no