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Finnish Greens ease stance on early nuclear closures

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Finnish Greens ease stance on early nuclear closures

Finland's Green League has broken ranks with other environmentalist green parties by abandoning its hardline opposition to existing nuclear power plants.

Pro-nuclear "ecomodernists" are hailing the change as a sign of a growing schism in the wider green party movement, but the Finnish party remains committed to a long-term nuclear phase-out and opposed to new nuclear projects.

After much discussion, the Green League voted to relax its anti-nuclear stance at a recent party convention ahead of the country's parliamentary elections set to be held April 2019. The party endorsed a technology-neutral, market-friendly attitude to cleaner energy that still rejects nuclear power for economic reasons but demands other emissions-free energy resources replace any retiring reactors.

SNL Image

TVO's 1600-MW Olkiluoto 3 project in Eurajoki, Finland, in August 2016.

Source: TVO

The Green League wants to avoid replacing nuclear generation with carbon-emitting fossil fuel-fired generation, which has been the case elsewhere. For instance, the 2012 retirements of two plants in California and Wisconsin saw those states' emissions increase 35% and 16%, respectively.

"We [now] have no dogmatic position, only a small minority of voters voted against nuclear energy," Green League Chairman Touko Aalto told Helsingin Sanomat. "Before, and until today, people resisted nuclear energy for ideological reasons. Today, it is largely supported by ideological grounds."

Matti Virtanen, a journalist at Talouselämä, observed that "the ecomodernists [are] slowly gain[ing] ground in the party elite" and that the policy shift is reflective of that change. But, "in practice the party is unable to break its' anti-nuclear tradition without splitting in two," said Virtanen on Twitter.

The internal divide came to the forefront in 2017 when four Green League municipal candidates endorsed nuclear energy. The Green League ended up winning 12.5% of the vote, which environmental analyst J.M. Korhonen attributed to a range of social and policy issues — but not environmentalism. A 2017 survey conducted by TNS Gallup found that 41% of Finns favor nuclear power, while 23% oppose it, with the remaining 64% having no opinion.

With the current election campaign, Green League Secretary General Lasse Miettinen acknowledged that "the wording has changed slightly" in the party's platform to endorse a scientific "non-Luddite approach" to combating climate change.

But in the long-run "our goal is to phase out nuclear energy," Miettinen said in an email. "The only qualification being that the said phase-out must be done in such a way that it does not increase CO2 emissions, i.e. the phase-out is a long-term goal."

In an email, famed former NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen praised the policy shift but said "progress follows the hearse" as "a few old [hardline anti-nuclear] geezers" in the party "need to die off soon for the sake of Finland and the world."

Finland forges ahead with new reactors and a permanent nuclear waste repository

According to Statistics Finland, Finland's four existing reactors supplied about 26% of the country's electricity in 2016, while net imports contributed 22%, hydropower about 18%, fossil fuels 17%, and the remainder mostly generated by wind and dirty biomass energy. The aim is to replace coal-fired generation by 2030 with carbon taxes and two new reactors as means to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The greens have not taken a position on the two ongoing nuclear projects beyond expressing concern that their construction has been slow and problematic. "We don't want any more [new nuclear projects]," the party said.

SNL Image

Posiva Oy's ONKALO nuclear waste storage repository currently under construction in Eurajoki, Finland.

Source: Posiva Oy

Construction of the first of those projects, Teollisuuden Voima Oyj's 1600-MW Olkiluoto 3, began in 2005. Construction delays of this first-of-a-kind "EPR" pressurized water reactor by state-owned French nuclear developer Framatome, formerly a part of AREVA, and German engineering company Siemens AG have pushed back its slated commercial date by 10 years to September 2019 and boosted projected costs from €3.2 billion to an estimated €5.5 billion.

The second project, Fennovoima Ltd's 1200-MW Hanhikivi 1, is scheduled to start construction in 2019 and is being built by Russian state-owned nuclear developer Rosatom at an estimated cost of €6.7 billion. The commercial date of the pressurized water reactor AES-2006 design is 2024.

Finland is also nearing completion of the world's first permanent spent nuclear fuel repository at the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant on the west coast. Teollisuuden Voima Oyj subsidiary Posiva Oy began building the project in 2004. The €3.5 billion ONKALO deep geological repository will store more than 6,500 tons of nuclear waste in vertical holes about 1,400 feet underground.

Voimaosakeyhtiö SF claims a majority stake in Fennovoima alongside a minority stake by a Rosatom subsidiary.