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Page last updated at 13:16 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 14:16 UK

Nuclear dawn delayed in Finland

By Rob Broomby
BBC World Service, Olkiluoto, Finland

Olkiluoto 3's turbine
The turbine is the world's largest and will generate about 2m horse power

When it is finished, Finland's Olkiluoto 3 (OL3) nuclear reactor will be the biggest the world has ever seen, the excavation site alone is the size of 55 football fields.

It was to have been a pilot project for bigger, better, cleaner, Generation III reactors, which would lead the charge back to nuclear power in a continent which had gone cold on atomic energy after the accidents at Chernobyl and Thee Mile Island.

But hopes of an early nuclear dawn on the Baltic coast are fading - the May start up date came and went and the OL3 is now not expected to begin pumping out electricity until 2012 - three years later than planned and about $2.4bn dollars (1.7bn euros) over budget.

The soaring cranes tell the tale: this project is far from complete.

There have been a string of problems starting with the concrete, then the welding.

Now, the safety regulator is questioning the designs for the reactor's nerve centre - the Instrumentation and Control system.

If Greenpeace had said at the start that... its going to be three and a half years late and 60% over budget, everybody would have laughed
Steve Thomas, Greenwich University

STUK - the Finnish safety regulator - has shown signs of irritation with the French company Areva who want to build many of Europe's future reactors.

For Jukka Laaksonen, director general of STUK, getting the instrumentation and control right is absolutely critical to the safety of the plant.

He says the experts at Areva understand the problem but, "the company's management is not going along".

Areva, which is mainly owned by the French government, says it is "strengthening" its team to help implement STUK's requests, with a "significant increase" in the taskforce working to sort out the problem.

It says part of the problem lies with the regulator who has been slow in approving design documents.

Disappointment

For his part, Jarmo Tanhua, chief executive of Finnish utility TVO, the ultimate end customer of the plant, admits to being disappointed.

Cranes
Delays with the project could have European, even global ramifications

"A lot has been going wrong," says Ariane Sains of Platts Nuclear Publications.

"They have had many problems with subcontractors who simply have not understood the very strict requirements for delivering to a nuclear project."

Even Philippe Knoche, Areva's chief operating officer, admits things have not been going well.

"It's no secret that Areva is losing money on this project," he tells me.

The two sides are now fighting over compensation for the delays.

TVO is trying to claim back $3.3bn (2.4bn euros) from Areva for the soaring costs, not least to cover having to buy-in electricity to plug the gap until the plant is finished.

On the other side Areva is claiming $1.4bn (1bn euros) from the Finns and the relationship on the Baltic has shown signs of icing.

"If Greenpeace had said at the start that after four years of construction its going to be three and a half years late and 60% over budget everybody would have laughed at them," says Steve Thomas, Professor of Energy Policy at Greenwich University in the UK who has been monitoring the project.

"But that's what has happened. It's hard to think of it going more wrong than it has."

'Teething troubles'

Britain's safety regulator, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), now seems to be echoing Finnish concerns.

The NII must decide whether to approve the design of Areva's European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) for use in the UK.

In a letter to Areva, the NII has warned that if questions regarding the instrumentation and control systems are not resolved it could, "prevent a successful outcome".

We are clearly confident we can answer these requirements
Philipe Knoche, Areva

In the worst case, the EPR could be struck-off the list of reactor designs approved for use in the UK, a devastating blow to the French company and the British nuclear programme.

Areva's Philippe Knoche says it is not that "black and white".

By knowing the requirement of the regulators upfront, he says they can solve the problems.

"We are clearly confident we can answer these requirements," he adds.

The French say what they are encountering are just teething troubles, and that when the problems are solved, the EPR will be rolled-out as a global energy solution.

They have invested so much in the nuclear future they are unlikely to walk away, but if the safety questions are not adequately answered, the delays could occur yet again in both Britain and Finland.

The Finns may be frustrated but they are showing no sign of losing confidence in the nuclear option and they may even go ahead with another reactor after this one.

And at least they have a plan and a location for their underground nuclear waste repository and that does put them among the world leaders.

The nuclear dawn may be delayed but like the returning sun after the long northern winters, it will eventually come.

The question for Finland is when and at what cost.



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