Finland's decision to move ahead with the first authorization for a new nuclear power plant in Western Europe since Chernobyl is creating political tumult both within and without the Scandinavian country.
Electricity-strapped Finns would like to see a few more nuclear power plants like this.
Until its parliament voted by a slim majority on May 24 to build the country's fifth nuclear reactor, many saw Finland as a pioneer in efforts to shift away from nuclear energy. Indeed, Helsinki was among the first governments to suspend nuclear plant projects in the wake of Chernobyl.
Flora and fauna are abundant in Finland, but electricity sources aren't. Faced with the grappling economic and political problem of having to import 70 percent of their energy - much of it from Russia - politicians in Finland are turning back to nuclear energy in order to increase domestic electricity production.
The move goes against the current trend away from nuclear energy in Europe, but it has considerable domestic political currency in Finland, where 48 percent say they would support it if it helped bring them in line with an international environmental treaty. (The German, Belgian and Swedish governments voted in recent years to undertake complete phaseouts of nuclear energy production.)
In protest of the vote, the Finnish Green Party decided to quit the coalition government a week ago. And the apparent course reversal also raised eyebrows in other EU countries like Germany which are grappling to find ways to eliminate nuclear and coal power while at the same time pursuing energy policies that will put them in line with the Kyoto Protocol's emissions limits.
But the Finns found support in European Energy Commissioner Layola de Palacio, who has complained that discussing nuclear energy has been "taboo" in Europe since Chernobyl, and implied last week that nuclear energy needs to be taken more seriously if the EU is to meet its Kyoto obligations.
Finland already has four nuclear reactors at two separate plants, which were built in the towns of Eurojaki and Loviisa during the 1970s. Together, they produce 26.3 percent of Finland's electricity.
Alternative and renewable energy sources like wind and hydrogen-power complete the remaining sliver of the pie. Environmentalists and independent researchers complain that the government could do more to increase the share of alternative energy in overall energy production.
When the new plant goes online, the country will be able to increase the share of nuclear energy to 35 percent of Finland's energy consumption, thus creating more economic independence.
A shift toward energy independence
Ein Wasserflugzeug parkt an einem Pier in Finnland in der Abenddämmerung.
"We are very happy with this decision," Finish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen said following the vote. "We will be less dependent on imports or a single source of energy." Lipponen also said the plant would help Finland fuel economic growth in the country and significantly reduce greenhouse gases.
Officials estimate the new reactor will cost between 1.7 and 2.5 billion euro ($2.3 billion), and that it will be ready to go online by 2008. The privately financed plant will be operated by Finish electricity giant Teollisuuden Voima (TVO), which also runs the country's other nuclear facilities. The reactor is expected to generate between 1,000 and 1,600 megawatts of power.
First new project in years
Ironically, Germany - whose Social Democrat and Greens coalition government is phasing out nuclear power - could stand to gain economically by Finland's endeavor. The German firm KWU, a power plant building subsidiary of Siemens, is seen as a leading contender along with several American, Russian, French and Swedish companies to build the Finnish plant.
Following the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the former Soviet Union, most Western European countries put plans to build new plants on hold, including Helsinki. The Golfech nuclear power plant in Toulouse, France, went online in 1991, but its contract had already been awarded three years prior to the nuclear disaster that contaminated the Ukraine and much of northern Europe.