Finland, much like the United States, is facing growing energy demands. It needs approximately to double its electricity generation capacity in the next 25 years.
Finland ranks fifth in the world for per capita electricity
consumption, so it has a significant incentive to secure long-term
many nations—including the United States—that seem to put political
correctness ahead of sound policy, Finland is developing a broad mix of
environmentally friendly, economically competitive energy sources.
Nuclear energy is an important part of that effort. Not only has
Finland begun to construct a new, modern 1,600-megawatt reactor, but it
is successfully executing a cohesive, workable strategy to manage
spent fuel. The United States has done neither.
Olkiluoto 3 will
be Finland's fifth power reactor and the first one brought online since
1980. Officials are suggesting that a decision will soon be made to
build a sixth reactor. Finland already generates about 28 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, compared to about 20 percent in the U.S.
Why Nuclear in Finland
Nuclear energy is attractive to Finland and the United States because
it is environmentally friendly, safe, affordable, and largely
domestically produced. Like many other countries, Finland is struggling
to reconcile a desire (or mandate) to reduce carbon dioxide emissions
while maintaining economic competitiveness. Under the new European
Union energy plan, it will be forced to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions by 20 percent, increase renewable energy by 20 percent, and
increase efficiency by 20 percent by 2020.
such demands will likely cause a spike in energy prices. However,
affordable energy is critical to sustaining economic competitiveness
in economies with high labor costs, expensive environmental mandates,
and other regulatory expenditures. This is especially true in
economies that depend on energy-intensive activities like
manufacturing, such as the Finnish and U.S. economies. Thus, Finland
concluded that access to vast quantities of affordable energy should
be a top national priority. Given that nuclear power can provide that
energy affordably and with zero carbon dioxide emissions, it was an
Cost Overruns and Nuclear Power
Critics have questioned the economic viability of nuclear power based on delays associated with Finland's reactor. At $1.4 billion over budget and two years behind schedule, Finland's reactor has had its problems. However, these delays and cost overruns are not necessarily indicative of the future economic viability of nuclear power.
3 is a first-of-a-kind, large, multibillion-dollar power station.
Assigning all of the costs of the first plant to future plants would
not be accurate. Construction costs will be reduced as lessons learned
from initial construction projects are integrated into future ones.
of the overruns are simply a reflection of rising labor and material
costs. These increases, which are not unique to the nuclear industry,
would affect any project. Building the 3,200 windmills that would be
needed to produce the same amount of electricity as Olkiluoto 3 will
produce would likely suffer from the same price volatility.
lack of skilled personnel, shortages of nuclear-qualified components
and materials, and inexperienced vendors and subcontractors have also
Very few reactors have been ordered over the past three decades, and
the industrial base and skill sets are simply not yet available to
support the growing demand for commercial nuclear power. Although these
risks should have been expected for a project like Olkiluoto 3, they
are also correctable and will be resolved by the market over time.
backlogs are created by new orders, nuclear suppliers will invest to
expand capacity. For example, Japan Steel Works has already announced
that it will expand its capacity to produce the large forgings used to
manufacture reactor components. It is the sole supplier of these
forgings on the world market. Other companies have made similar
announcements to provide expanded uranium enrichment, mining,
manufacturing, and used-fuel services. This growth in capacity will
eventually meet demand and moderate some of the inflationary pressures
that are driving up costs for Finland's newest reactor.
Spent Nuclear Fuel
Like nuclear power plants around the world, Finland's reactors also
produce spent nuclear fuel. Finland's four operating reactors produce
about 70 tons of spent fuel annually. America's 104 operating reactors
produce about 2,000 tons per year. Finland's waste management regime,
similar to that of the U.S., is governed by statute that mandates
permanent disposition of all nuclear waste.
dictates that its nuclear power producers are fully responsible for
managing spent fuel until final disposition. The two power companies
that operate nuclear power stations in Finland jointly established
Posiva Oy, a third entity to oversee waste management. Posiva Oy,
along with a network of universities, researchers, and contractors,
operates under the supervision of the Radiation and Nuclear Safety
Authority in researching, developing, and implementing Finland's
nuclear waste activities.
Spent fuel is highly radioactive when it is removed from the reactor.
All radioactive materials decay, but while some lose their
radioactivity within fractions of a second, others take billions of
years. However, most stabilize within an intermediate period. The
radioactivity of spent nuclear fuel falls to about one hundredth of its
original levels within a year and to one thousandth of its original
levels within 40 years. This characteristic makes interim storage an important element of spent fuel management.
Interim storage is a critical part of Finland's spent nuclear fuel management regime. Although the United States has a de facto
interim storage system because the federal government has not fulfilled
its legal obligation to take possession of and dispose of America's
spent fuel, it does not fully integrate interim storage as a part of
its spent fuel regime.
In the Finnish system, spent fuel is
removed from the reactors and placed in fuel pools, as is done in the
U.S., but then it is placed in on-site interim storage facilities where
it is left to decay. This has two major advantages.
permanent geologic storage is a scarce resource. Although a geologic
storage facility's capacity is often expressed in terms of volume, the
primary limiting factor is heat load. Radioactive material gives off
heat as it decays. The more it has decayed, the less heat it will give
off, allowing more to be stored in any one place. Thus, allowing the
fuel to decay for a few decades at an interim storage facility would
ultimately allow more spent fuel to be placed in a long-term geologic
In the U.S., introducing interim storage would
allow far more flexibility in how to use Yucca Mountain. However,
adding interim storage to the U.S. spent fuel management regime would
in no way diminish the vital role of the Yucca Mountain repository.
Opening Yucca must remain a top U.S. priority.
interim storage frees cooling pool capacity. When spent fuel rods are
removed from the reactors, they are placed in cooling pools. Once a
U.S. reactor's pools are full, it would have nowhere else to put spent
fuel rods and would essentially be forced to shut down.
a problem in the United States, where plants were built with spent fuel
pools under the assumption that the spent fuel rods would be removed
and disposed of off-site. However, the politics of Yucca Mountain has
prevented the U.S. from executing its spent fuel management strategy as
planned. U.S. plants are facing the real possibility of filling their
cooling pools. Interim storage in the U.S., as is done in Finland,
should be part of America's comprehensive spent fuel management regime
along with permanent geologic storage.
Permanent Geologic Storage
Finland, like the U.S., plans eventually to place its nuclear waste in
a permanent geologic storage facility. Also, Finland's plan to
implement a comprehensive spent fuel management regime, like that of
the U.S., began in the early 1980s. However, the two countries diverge
significantly in their execution of spent fuel strategies. Most
notably, Finland has an approved plan with national and local support
for a permanent geologic facility, and the U.S. does not.
spending a decade identifying possible locations, Finland chose four
sites as possible locations for the geologic facility. Following
environmental impact assessments, Posiva Oy applied in 1999 for
permission to move the project forward.
After working with the
local community, the government gave permission to move forward with
the project by the following year. The decision enjoyed broad support
in Finland's parliament, which voted 159 to 3 in favor of the plan. The
local council also gave its support to the project. A construction
license application should be submitted by 2016, with operations ready
to commence by 2020. The facility will have a maximum capacity of 4,000
tons of spent fuel, which is adequate for its current fleet of power
Today, Finland is the only country in the world with an approved plan to construct a permanent geologic repository.  The cost of constructing, operating, and decommissioning the facility is part of the price of nuclear-generated electricity. 
Although burdened by high up-front capital costs, financial risk, and
difficult politics, Finland recognizes the positive long-term impact
of nuclear power. Not only has Finland begun constructing a new
reactor, but it has an approved waste disposition plan. Its policy is
rational and consistent with the economic and national interests of
As the U.S. struggles to develop a productive energy
policy, it should learn from Finland that nuclear power can have an
important role in reconciling the desire to reduce pollution with the
need to remain economically competitive. The U.S. should not blindly
follow Finnish energy policy simply because Finland is building a
reactor. It should, however, recognize the important role that nuclear
power can play in meeting America's energy requirements and follow the
Finnish example of how to move from talking about nuclear power to
actually building nuclear power plants.
for Economic Co-operation and Development, Nuclear Energy Agency,
"Nuclear Energy Agency Country Profiles: Finland," updated June 20,
2007, at www.nea.fr/html/general/profiles/finland.html (February 25, 2008).
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, "Finland to Make Decision to Build Sixth Nuke by 2011."
 The 3,200 windmills number assumes that each wind turbine can produce 1.5 megawatts and has a capacity factor of 33 percent.