Finnish parliamentarians have approved permits for the construction of two new nuclear power plants in the country, a move which critics say could hurt the development of renewable energy sources like wind even beyond Finland's borders.
Lawmakers voted on whether or not to grant a construction permit to the energy firm Teollisuuden Voima for a plant in western Finland, where two reactors are already operating and one is under construction. The other permit is for the energy firm Fennivoima, which wants to build a reactor in the northwest of the country.
But opponents of the plan say expanding Finland's nuclear energy sector could have serious consequences not only for the environment, but also for Finland's development of renewable energy sources, such as wind power and electricity from biomass.
"Finland is already lagging behind in this development and we have very little wind power here compared to Germany or Spain," Juha Aromaa, the communications manager for Greenpeace Finland, told Deutsche Welle, who added that investing money in expensive nuclear plants would take resources away from the development of renewables.
He and others also worry that with the new construction, Finland will begin exporting its nuclear-generated electricity, primarily to Nord Pool, the single financial energy market for Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.
"The expansion would poison for us," Lars Aagaard, director of Danish energy concern Dansk Energi, told Die Tageszeitung newspaper, since it could lead to an oversupply of electricity, which in turn could drive prices lower and make planned investments in renewable energy sources like wind power unprofitable.
Ten years ago, when the country was discussing an expansion of its nuclear energy program and a new plant (currently under construction), the government unveiled an ambitious investment program for renewables. But nearly a decade later, almost nothing has happened, say critics. Just 0.3 percent of Finnish electricity comes from wind power.
Finland already has four operating nuclear power plants and the one under construction, by the French firm Areva, is scheduled to go online in 2013, although the project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. Some 30 percent of Finland's domestic electricity is generated at its nuclear plants.
When the French-built plant goes online along with the other two being planned, the nation's capacity to generate electricity at its nuclear facilities will triple, possibly covering all of its electricity needs.
Just under one-half of Finns, 48 percent, have a positive attitude toward nuclear power, according to a February poll commissioned by the country's national industrial association, Finnish Energy Industries. The survey found 17 percent have negative attitudes toward nuclear energy while 29 percent were neutral.
"People consider the fact that nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide," Silje Holopainen, secretary of the Finnish Nuclear Society, told Deutsche Welle. "We are pretty far in researching how to deal with the waste products so people don't really see it as a danger."
She dismisses the argument that nuclear expansion will hurt the development of renewable energies.
"We are developing wind energy, but I think we need many different kinds of energy production," she added.
The government, which has pushed hard for the granting of the construction permits and was eager to get them approved before the summer legislative recess, has argued that Finland's energy needs are increasing, and that the country needs to wean itself from Russian electricity imports, which reached a record high in 2009 and currently make up about 15 percent of all power.
"It's first and foremost to be able to replace Russian electricity imports," Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen said. "We should not be dependent on them and there is no sense in paying Russia for electricity we could produce ourselves."
But Greenpeace's Aromaa dismisses that argument, doubting the Finland will ever completely stop Russian energy imports. According to him, Russia sells Finland electricity at 25 euros per megawatt while the Nord Pool price is 50 euros per megawatt.
He also says the government's focus on increasing energy needs is misleading, since more and more of Finland's traditional heavy industry, such as paper and steel production, have moved offshore as the country moves toward an economy based on high-tech and services.
Electricity consumption in Finland is the highest in the EU and more than double Germany's per capita use, partly due to the fact that winter temperatures can drop to as low as minus 50 degrees Centigrade.
Author: Kyle James
Editor: Ranjitha Balasubramanyam