nuclear industry

In Finland, the licensing process is more transparent for a newly built Russian NPP

The Hungarian government compared the Paks II. NPP project to the Finnish contract of Russian state nuclear giant Rosatom but a closer look at the Hanhikivi-1 project reveals that the licensing process of a newly built NPP is fundamentally different in the Scandinavian country. While there is only sporadic public information available in Hungary about the Paks II. NPP licensing process, the whole issue is much more transparent in Finland.

The Hungarian public is not at all aware of the current state of the licensing process of the planned Paks II. NPP except that the project company could not even start the construction work due to lack of proper permissions from the state. Announcing the Paks II. project in 2014, the Hungarian government promised that the first new reactor block will produce electricity in 2023 – five years later the three hundred thousand page construction documentation of the new NPP is still not submitted to the nuclear regulatory authority.

The Paks II. NPP project has to obtain more than 6,000 regulatory permits, out of which they have obtained 300 by now – János Süli, the Minister responsible for the Paks II. project told the Sustainable Development Commitee of the Hungarian Parliament this summer.

Apart from this statement, there is practically no public information available on the status of the licensing process in Hungary. In July 2019, Miklós Horváth, Deputy CEO of Paks II Nuclear Power Plant Ltd. told a local media outlet in Paks that if and when the construction documentation will be approved by the nuclear regulatory authority, the project can move from the “preparatory phase” to the ”construction phase” of nuclear power plant construction. He did not mention a target date this time.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Safety and Risk Sciences of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna released a study, which lists serious safety, regulatory and legal risks attached to the licensing process of the Paks II. NPP. The study was prepared for Greenpeace and found professional shortcomings in the licensing process and the regulatory authority’s processes.

For the preparation of nuclear power plant construction, the Finnish-Hungarian exchange of views is certainly better than between the respective governments on the EU level recently but the Finns have quite different views on licensing a newly built NPP: they talk openly about problems discovered and possible solutions as well.

The Finnish company Fennovoima building the Hanhikivi-1 NPP was founded in 2007 with less than a dozen employees, and became 34 percent owned by Rosatom subsidiary Rusatom Overseas in 2013. The Finnish Parliament approved the project in 2010 and the Russian state nuclear giant now estimates that the construction of a new nuclear power plant near Pyhäjoki will be completed by 2028, with one 1,200 MW reactor block at the cost of € 6.7 billion.

In Finland, the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) has the final word in the regulatory process and while the authority has repeatedly warned Fennovoima about lack of documentation and concerns about the company’s safety culture, they made it clear that their priority was not to meet deadlines set by the investors.

“When the competent Finnish ministry is asking us to make a statement, they don´t set a deadline when it is needed.  There is an opportunity once in the lifetime of a nuclear facility to see the independences of the system and components. If you miss something: it can be corrected but it would be hard to do it later. The construction license is the key” – Janne Nevalainen, a project manager of STUK explained to Atlatszo journalists. Nevalainen declined to comment on the 2021 licensing target date, they are not the Fennovoima scheduling office, and said that the regulatory authority received approximately 10 percent of the documentation so far, based on which the government will grant or refuse a construction permit.

Based on documents already submitted to the construction permit, STUK may ask questions and point to open questions still to be answered. To illustrate the complexity of the current situation, the project manager gives the example that Rosatom has a mathematical model that can tell the chance of a metal part breaking, but this calculation model for Hanhikivi-1 has not yet been developed.

The power plant supplier (RAOS, a local subsidiary of Rosatom) will therefore play an important role in the development of the licensing documentation, and it will be responsible for adapting the plans to the Finnish regulatory environment, which Fennovoima will examine before submitting it to STUK for approval.

Fennovioma calculates differently, claiming that by the end of last year, about a quarter of the necessary documentation had been submitted to STUK – mainly documentation related to the plant’s reactor and primary circuit, and their appendices. They also set up a new organizational unit to speed up the decision-making mechanism and improving cooperation with suppliers. All issues that may affect the licensing process will be prioritized here.

Russia’s Titan-2 – the main contractor for Fennovoima’s Hanhikivi 1 nuclear power plant project – has awarded a contract to the Framatome-Siemens consortium for the plant’s main instrumentation and control (I&C) systems. Signing the contract in Moscow in October, Jouni Takakarhu, project director of Fennovoima said that by now with all the major suppliers selected, „the design and licensing work can proceed according to our schedule”.

“They haven’t been able to live up to their promises for quite some time, obtaining a construction permit for 2021 is in question, and a planned start in eight years doesn’t seem realistic at all” – Olli Tiainen, project manager for Greenpeace in Finland says. He argues that it takes almost four years to produce the reactor tank what precludes the system from being completed by 2028.

Greenpeace also does not see that STUK’s previous critical remarks on security culture and organizational and management structure have made a real difference at Fennovoima, apart from changes in firm’s senior management over the past year, when multiple senior executives left the company without an explanation. Olli Tiainen claims that Rosatom is suffering from a chronic lack of specialist staff while constantly complaining about Finnish bureaucracy.

As the Russians undertook to build a turnkey solution without a deadline, the construction in theory could last for any length of time. The Russian nuclear industry has embarked on several projects around the world, and according to a Finnish researcher, are ”too confident” in their NPP-building abilities.

Maarit Laihonen, a researcher at Aalto University (his dissertation, Political foreplay for nuclear new build is a frequently cited source in Finland), said that when entering the Hanhikivi-1 project, the Russians overestimated their own knowledge and diplomatic potential. Laihonen thinks that STUK is doing a good job of overseeing Rosatom and Fennovoima, and points out that the licensing process has slowed down and “the two organizations don’t seem to be able to cope”. There is also silence about the Hanhikivi-1 project among politicians which also indicates that the enterprise is “in a state of distress,” he added.

Jorma Aurela, chief engineer at the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, said that if the country’s nuclear investments were all in place, the share of nuclear energy in the Finnish energy mix could reach 30 percent.  Hanhikivi-1 is expected to cover 10 percent of Finland’s electricity needs. Fennovoima expects that the new nuclear power plant will be an appropriate solution to both the increased electricity imports in recent years and the closure of Finland’s coal-fired power plants by 2029, and could help the country increase its energy self-sufficiency.

Greenpeace’s Olli Tiainen just smiles at this. He says that the region’s energy projections for 2030 already proclaim the dominance of wind power: it is estimated that in a decade one third of Finnish energy production will come from here. In addition, the interconnected Scandinavian and Northern European networks could bring additional cheaper Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and even German offshore wind energy to the Finnish network – they are currently the cheapest form of electricity production.

In addition to price competition, Tiainen thinks that the growing political and social awareness of the climate crisis also prefers solutions moving to solar and wind energy. According to Greenpeace, the outlook for the nuclear industry in Finland is not good in the short to medium term. In addition, a new element has become more prominent in the assessment of nuclear power plants: the project is viewed by the majority of the population as a political and national security risk.

The Finnish Institute of International affairs published a study in 2016, in which researchers studying changes in Russian foreign policy, found that Moscow uses energy dependency to undermine the national sovereignty of smaller countries. “It’s no coincidence that politicians tend to leave the decision to STUK. I think a lot of people are secretly hoping that the project will somehow stop spontaneously” – said the Greenpeace specialist.

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Written by Gergely Nagy and István M. Szabó. You can read the more detailed Hungarian language story here.