Finland risks digging itself into a nuclear grave as it moves ahead with plans for more reactors, new deep undeground repository for nuclear waste

Baltic Sea Infotour

Publish date: August 1, 2010

Written by: Galina Raguzina

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

Finland’s plans to build two new nuclear reactors and a nuclear repository in close vicinity to the Baltic Sea were not taken lightly by ecological activists, who voiced their concerns in a statement submitted to the Finnish embassy in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius during a picket held in mid-May as part of the international Baltic Sea Infotour. The tour, still in progress, will culminate in a sit-down blockade of Finland’s Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in late August.

The Baltic Sea Infotour has raised as an idea – according to the event’s description available across various ecological sites on the Internet – for various groups, organisations, and individuals who share a common concern for the well-being of the Baltic Sea and problems related to its radioactive pollution to travel across the Baltic nations of Finland, Russia, Latvia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden in order to “come in contact with local initiatives, carry out actions, take part in information events and organise some of those events…, have network meetings with local activists, spread information about nuclear issues, and maybe other topics, too.”

The campaign, aiming to inform the public about nuclear power and its risks, as well as about renewable alternatives, started in Finland’s Åland in June and will circle back to Finland after two months, ending in Oulu in late August 2010. Events on the agenda include protests against building new nuclear power plants (NPPs) or other nuclear sites on the Baltic shoreline.

The new construction projects only recently launched on the Baltic Sea include at this point three additional nuclear reactors – at Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant in Western Finland, at Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant near St. Petersburg in Russia, and Baltic (Kaliningrad) Nuclear Power Plant in Russia’s westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad Region, close to the Lithuanian border. More NPP construction plans are also currently on the agenda in Finland, Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland. In Germany and Sweden, where nuclear energy is officially outlawed as a result of public protests, plans are being considered to expand radioactive waste storage facilities.

The Olkiluoto project – a third reactor planned at this site on the shore of the Gulf of Bothnia, where two 860-megawatt BWR reactors are already in operation (a license for a fourth reactor was just issued by the Finnish parliament in July 2010) – has since inception been steeped in controversy as delays, caused by violations of construction standards and issues of supervision, as well as those of overspending, have drawn criticism from all sides, including energy experts, environmentalists, and STUK, the Finnish nuclear safety regulator. The reactor was supposed to go online in May 2009, but the launch date has been postponed several times, with the latest change in schedule being implemented last June, when the new deadline was set for 2013.
Greenpeace Nordic already called the project “a three-billion-euro mistake.”

“Olkiluoto-3 has yet again proved to be a disaster. The Finnish government must accept its costly mistake and immediately abandon the project,” Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace Finland energy campaigner, said in an statement posted on Olkiluoto.Info, a website engaged in critical analysis of the scandal-mired endeavour.

“It is not too late for them to invest in … true solutions to climate change, clean energy based on renewable technologies, and energy efficiency, which they admitted was entirely possible at the time investment into [the reactor] was agreed [upon].”

According to Myllyvirta, the project has already run EUR 1.5 billion over budget due to massive delays, with Elfi, the Finnish consortium of large electricity consumers, estimating that overspending would result in EUR 3 billion in indirect costs to electricity users. At the time the project was settled on, the Finnish government claimed it would cost EUR 0.5 billion more to invest in alternative energy sources.

“The … project is the only example of construction on a European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), the flagship of the so-called nuclear renaissance, aggressively promoted as a low-cost ‘mature’ technology. The chronic delays and setbacks at the Olkiluoto plant show that quite the opposite is true: Complications, escalating costs, chronic safety issues, delays, and a lack of transparency remain the true face of the nuclear industry,” Myllyvirta wrote, warning that governments across the world should learn from Finland’s mistakes.

Baltic Sea Infotour activists will likely have these and other arguments in mind as, having travelled across eight Baltic countries, with thirteen stop-overs on the way, they set up a sit-down blockade at Olkiluoto NPP on August 28.

The blockade is also the Finnish anti-nuclear movement’s response to the Finnish government’s bid to build a fourth reactor at Olkiluoto and another one at a completely new site, Fennovoima, for which the location does not seem to have been settled upon yet. An approval to start construction of Fennovoima was just granted by the government to the project owner last April. And both projects received a majority of votes in the Finnish parliament on July 5. If brought to fruition, Fennovoima will become the third commercial nuclear plant operated in this small Baltic nation, besides Olkiluoto and Loviisa Nuclear Power Plant, where two 448-megawatt Soviet-designed VVER-440/213 PWR reactors are in operation.

A press release posted by the organisers on the Baltic Nuclear Infotour’s website last May said:

“The nuclear industry wants Finland to be the guinea pig for their claim there would be a worldwide ‘renaissance of nuclear power.’ In fact, there is no such renaissance: during the next ten or so years, many more nuclear reactors will have to be shut down for reasons of age than new projects are announced. Even [the] industry’s own studies have shown that it would not be feasible to replace all of these old reactors during this time. The nuclear industry is simply trying to postpone the final winding up of the antiquated and dangerous dinosaur that is nuclear power.”

Stopping the radioactive pollution

Olkiluoto, following the 1994 amendments to the Finnish Nuclear Energy Act, which stipulate that all nuclear waste produced in Finland must be disposed of in Finland as well, was also selected in 2000 to become the site of disposal of Finland’s spent nuclear fuel.

A nuclear waste repository research tunnel known as Onkalo is being developed for these purposes by the Finnish nuclear waste management company Posiva in the granite bedrock close to Olkiluoto NPP. The Onkalo repository, where initial surveying and excavations works already began in 2004, is expected to be large enough to accept canisters with spent fuel for one hundred years of storage before it is filled to capacity around 2120, upon which the tunnel will be backfilled and sealed.

All this, and the reactor projects, are developing against a troublesome picture painted by HELCOM, the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (or Helsinki Commission), which is an entity striving to keep all sources of pollution away from the marine environment of the Baltic Sea, through intergovernmental co-operation among the nations inhabiting the Baltic shores. According to HELCOM, the Baltic Sea is the world’s most radioactively contaminated – a combined result of fallout from the 1986 nuclear disaster at Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, nuclear waste dumped by the British reprocessing facility Sellafield, as well as waste discharged from nuclear power plants in Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

In another press release, issued in April, the campaign’s organiser, journalist Falk Beyer, said: “It’s a crazy and irresponsible position to ask for more nuclear power plants increasing the radioactive releases to the Baltic Sea and the risk of serious accidents. These reactors would also produce large quantities of nuclear waste – even though no safe solution for the long-term storage of this waste is possible.”

Beyer has long been researching the problems of geological disposal of nuclear waste and has authored a study on the radioactive waste repository Morsleben in the former German Democratic Republic. In Germany, the quest for a safe method of final disposal of all kinds of radioactive waste started as long ago as in the 1960s. Four storage facilities are in operation at the moment, some of which are considered candidates for a prospective burial site.

But according to Beyer, no safe final disposal site has been found anywhere in the world during the past more than 50 years, and, says Beyer, scientists who have consulted the German government on these issues, believe safe interment of nuclear waste is impossible in principle.

“The Scandinavian concept of final disposal is scandalous – to dump the toxic and radioactive waste by the sea, [and] hoping that their artificial [containment measures] could prevent the release of these dangerous materials is a gamble with the entire region’s future,” Beyer said in the April statement.

Environmentalists demand that the Finnish government abolish the dangerous repository project: The waste will remain a significant environmental hazard for hundreds of thousands of years, while there are no guarantees that the bedrock in which it will be stored will remain geologically stable for that long.
Nuclear repository threatened by permafrost and risk or earthquakes

As issues of geological stability go, the cavernous formations prevalent in the area where the interment site is planned in Olkiluoto, are at risk of sustaining considerable damage as a result of seismic activity predicted during the expected new ice age, when the repository may end up above the level of permafrost. The stability of this area may further be undermined by construction works at the site, the Finnish broadcasting company YLE said in a report in April.

These speculations were proposed by the retired professor of geology Matti Saarnisto, whose credentials include a research on the ice conditions that were prevalent in Nordic countries and Russia during the latest ice age. He has written an expert statement about the final disposal of nuclear waste at Olkiluoto for STUK, which supervises the project.

Even though there are no exact estimates for the temperatures that are expected during the next ice age, experts agree that – based on the knowledge obtained about the previous ice age – the pressure of underground ice layers in the area around Olkiluoto may cause the bedrock to rise significantly. The last time this happened, deep geological shifts lifted the bedrock near Olkiluoto by as much as 800 metres, the YLE report said.

Professor Saarnisto believes big bedrock shifts and earthquakes are a distinct risk for the area. His findings, YLE said, are supported by the Australian scientist Kurt Lambeck, who has done a study of ice conditions in the area for the project owner, Posiva.

The threat of earthquake is being further exacerbated by the exploratory and construction works done by Posiva at the site, Saarnisto said.
“The nuclear waste company Posiva [paints] too positive a picture of the bedrock. As in other parts of Finland, there are already clear cracks in the bedrock [from before]. These add to [the] risk of bedrock movements. The bedrock is broken and there are no uncracked blocks of several square kilometres needed for a nuclear waste [burial] cave,” YLE quoted Saarnisto as saying.

The burial site is envisioned to lie at a depth of over 400 metres. Yet, according to Saarnisto, permafrost can be expected to spread down to much deeper levels, causing enormous pressure on the bedrock above. As permafrost pushes underground water masses in the bedrock, canisters containing nuclear waste may come under the threat of sustaining damage from the pressure. As a result, the dangerous materials may be released and carried by the water through the deep cracks right onto the surface, creating an environmental hazard of significant proportions.

Posiva claims nuclear waste will be safe in storage in its copper canisters, buried in layers of clay and thus hoped to remain intact for at least the next 100,000 years. Posiva, which has no alternative waste disposal strategy, intends to apply for a permit in 2012 to start main construction works at the site and is currently in the process of obtaining the needed documentation.


Project owner cutting corners on safety research?

Meanwhile, it looks as if Posiva may already be failing to meet the 2012 application deadline, while it is still struggling to prove exhaustively that the safety barriers it plans for the repository are absolutely reliable.
In May, a researcher working on Posiva’s project approached YLE with information that the pressure is building up on the company to make the deadline, and the resulting haste has already forced the company to “take shortcuts” at the expense of safety.

“The results of research are decided beforehand. […] data are being [cherry-picked] with the intention to [produce] the wanted result. If there is information that does not back up the result, it is ignored,” YLE quoted the researcher as saying.

Posiva has denied these allegations. When asked by YLE for a comment, Posiva’s research director Juhani Vira admitted that “the tight schedule might be getting on the researchers’ nerves,” but that all problems are being seriously considered.

“Some might think that the schedule is too tight since we have promised to [file] the construction permit application at the end of 2012. On the other hand, we are not assuming that all matters will be solved by then. We are going to continue the research,” Vira was quoted by YLE as saying.

Posiva is indeed operating under pressure: The Finnish parliament’s decision-in-principle to authorise the construction of the Olkiluoto repository expires in 2016. If the company does not make good on its promises – with 2020 being set as the date when the facility is scheduled to come online – the parliament’s decision will come under review, which means the project is bound to undergo intense political and public scrutiny.  

Both the broad criticism and the troubles with the hurried research and safety guarantees would indicate Finland’s “final solution” for its spent nuclear fuel is far from perfect. But for now, though it is having a hard time acknowledging the difficulties, Finland is steaming ahead with its plans. In doing so, this Baltic nation remains the only country in the world, besides Sweden, that is attempting to build a geological nuclear waste repository despite all existing concerns.

Russia, in its newly drafted legislation that, if passed, will regulate the management of radioactive and nuclear waste in the country, is only considering this option. But the idea to bury radioactive waste in deep geological formations has even been challenged by Russia’s former top nuclear official Yevgeny Adamov, whose background as an aggressive nuclear proponent, a nuclear scientist, and a former minister of atomic energy, would, if anything, only give additional weight to the warnings voiced by independent experts and environmentalists. 

“What science could prove that these geological formations will remain intact? There is no such science,” Adamov said in statements made last June.

Building nuclear repositories inside deep geological formations is something the United States, too, was toying with for several decades, as it researched the possibility in its Yucca Mountain project. Finally, it was exactly the unreliability of data pertaining to the stability of rock formations – the final resting place meant to keep dangerous radioactive material safely isolated from the surrounding environment for hundreds of thousands of years – that caused the Americans recently to give up on the idea.