Finland prepares for nuclear facility licences

31.8.2017 9.30

Finland currently has a number of nuclear facility projects pending that are of significance internationally, such as the world’s first spent nuclear fuel disposal facility. By law, the decisions concerning construction licences and operating licences are made by the Government. What factors are taken into consideration in this and what is the current status of the various projects?

Nuclear power covers more than a quarter of Finland’s need for electricity. According to the National Energy and Climate Strategy, nuclear energy will continue to have a significant role in Finland’s energy production, which is constantly moving in a more carbon neutral direction. It is important for Finland to maintain a robust power generation capacity due to its cold climate and the demand from industrial sectors. This means possibly additional operating periods for existing nuclear power plant units and construction of new nuclear facilities. It is essential that nuclear energy use is safe and responsible.

Government makes decisions based on preparatory work by Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment

By law, the highest level of command and control of the nuclear energy sector is exercised by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. Besides preparing legislation, a key task of the Ministry is to prepare decisions on nuclear facilities for the Government. Decisions-in principle on nuclear facilities are subject to ratification by Parliament. Construction and operating licences are decided by the Government alone. Due to the nature of nuclear energy use, the decisions are made at the highest level of government. The aim is to assess and determine whether, in each case, and taking into account the effects, the use of nuclear energy is in society’s best interests overall.

The preparation of decisions includes wide-ranging consultation and the extensive circulation of documents for comment, as well as compiling reports if necessary. The most important task of the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) is to evaluate the nuclear safety of the facilities.

Safety paramount, but other criteria too

The Nuclear Energy Act sets out provisions not only on safety requirements but also many other matters that are evaluated and required to be in order before a licence can be granted. The safety and emergency planning arrangements and the methods available for nuclear waste management must be appropriate, plans for nuclear fuel management must be sufficient, and so on. The applicant must generally have available all necessary expertise in the use of nuclear energy.

The profitability of major, multi-billion euro nuclear facility projects is above all a matter for consideration by the companies investing in them. In Finland, initiatives for the construction of nuclear power facilities are not made by the Government, and neither do such projects receive guarantees from the state. The Nuclear Energy Act requires in every case that the parties concerned have sufficient financial resources and prospects for implementing the project to completion and for operation of the facility.

Olkiluoto units at operating licence deliberation stage, Hanhikivi at safety evaluation stage

The third unit at the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant (Areva EPR, 1,600 MW) is larger than any other unit in operation anywhere in the world. Similar units are, however, under construction in Taishan, China and in Flamanville, France. During the autumn the facility’s testing will move to the stage of hot functional tests, and in spring 2018 the testing will focus on preparedness for loading the fuel. The aim of Teollisuuden Voima (TVO) is to begin power generation during 2018. Following the safety evaluation conducted by STUK, it is likely that everything will be in place for making the operating licence decision at the very start of 2018. Renewal of the operating licence for the Olkiluoto units currently in operation (OL1 and OL2) will also become a topical issue at the start of the year. TVO has applied for a new licence for these units for the next 20 years, to the end of 2038.

The current operating licences for the two units at Loviisa are valid until 2027 and 2030. The long-term nature of nuclear energy use means that Fortum’s decision regarding its wish to extend the operating lives of these facilities can already be expected in the next few years.

Fennovoima’s construction licence application for the Hanhikivi nuclear power plant (Rosatom AES-2006, 1,200 MW) was submitted in summer 2015. The STUK safety evaluation, which is an essential element in the decision-making, is under way, but still requires a considerable amount of documentation from the applicant. The licence processing timetable is therefore dependent to a great extent on how the company itself supplies this material during the remainder of this year and during 2018. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the extent to which the legal requirements for a construction licence are met, including financial requirements pertaining to the applicant. The Ministry will perform the preparatory work for the decision in due course.

The decommissioning of one nuclear facility is also pending in Finland. In June 2017, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland applied for authorisation to decommission its research reactor built in the early 1960s. The matter will go forward for consideration by the Government probably next year. For decommissioning purposes, an amendment to the Nuclear Energy Act has just been proposed that would require a separate licence to be applied for at such a stage of the lifecycle of a nuclear power plant. The decision over such a licence would also be taken by the Government.

Onkalo embodies responsibility and expertise

The outline of the current licence situation would not be complete without mention of Posiva’s Onkalo facility, a cave excavated in the Olkiluoto bedrock for the final disposal of high-level nuclear waste. This was the first such project in the world to receive a construction licence, given in 2015, for a spent nuclear fuel disposal facility. The timing for an operating licence application is likely to be in the early 2020s and the granting of the operating licence would then probably be around 2023. The progress with this project is the result of sustained efforts that began back in the 1980s.

Over the decades nuclear waste management expertise in Finland has risen to become world class and a potential export product. The responsible approach taken is evident in the fact that in Finland the power companies pay for their own nuclear waste management in its entirety. They are also charged for this in advance and the collected sum held in the National Nuclear Waste Management Fund. The Fund currently has a balance of about EUR 2.5 billion.

Finnish geological expertise is also connected with the Terrafame mine’s plan to recover uranium. Based on the terminology set out in the legislation, this too is a case of nuclear energy use and a Government licence is therefore required. An application from Terrafame is expected this autumn.

Riku Huttunen is Director General of the Energy Department at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.