Experts believe that the nuclear energy industry is needlessly overregulated, which has slowed down new capacity creation.
In Europe, Finland is considered a trailblazer when it comes to nuclear power. Four nuclear reactors at two plants on the Baltic Sea currently provide nearly a third of Finland’s domestic electricity. A fifth reactor is near completion, and another two are in the works. Once all the new reactors are up and running by around 2030, the country’s nuclear output will double to about 60% of electricity; nuclear will have become the undisputed mainstay of electricity generation.
In Finland, as in other markets, advocates of nuclear power see it as an effective alternative for fossil fuels, providing reliable energy with practically no emissions. Yet for all the country’s enthusiasm, new nuclear capacity isn’t exactly being installed with breakneck speed. A new 1.6-gigawatt reactor called Olkiluoto 3 has seen its launch pushed back yet again after repeated years-long delays causing billions of euro in cost overruns. The planned Hanhikivi Nuclear Power Plant, a Russian-Finnish project that will have a capacity of 1,200MW, has had its construction start postponed for several years due to delays with licensing.
The Finnish nuclear regulator justifies the delays by citing considerations of nuclear safety which are undeniably of the utmost priority. “Nuclear safety is the result of hard work in all the phases – in the design phase, the implementation phase, and the operations phase,” explains Jussi Heinonen, director of Nuclear Waste and Material Regulation at Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK).
“In Finland we have clear roles where STUK has a strong and independent mandate to regulate safety while licensees are responsible for abiding by safety regulations,” Heinonen tells Sustainability Times. “STUK has issued a comprehensive set of binding STUK regulations, which establish clearly the level of expectations we have for safety.”
Yet while experts naturally acknowledge the need for rigorous safety regulations, they believe that the nuclear energy industry has become needlessly over-regulated, which has slowed down new nuclear capacity creation.
“Nuclear safety regulations are overly onerous, especially when compared to other energy industries,” says Rauli Partanen, the award-winning author of The Climate Gamble, in which he advocates for embracing nuclear energy in order to tackle climate change.
“Nuclear regulation maximizes nuclear safety but not the overall safety of society,” Partanen argues in an interview with Sustainability Times. “Too much regulation that prevents new nuclear projects can actually endanger society as energy is then produced through more dangerous means like coal.”
Experts like Partanen are not arguing that safety issues over nuclear energy should be ignored or downplayed. Rather, the expert says, “a lot could be done to streamline nuclear regulations without making nuclear power any less safe.”
Long delays can cause costs of nuclear energy to skyrocket – a primary reason behind the decision of policymakers to think twice about opting for nuclear power in energy transitions. This hampers the adoption of low-carbon energy sources in countries that want to de-carbonize but whose climate and geography are unsuitable for wind or solar power through much of the year. Under these conditions, nuclear would be the best option, and Finland – a country with high energy needs but unable to fully benefit from renewables such as solar – has therefore opted for the nuclear route.
The fact that an overly rigid regulatory framework, often with changing goalposts that affect ongoing nuclear power plant constructions, are causing delays and surges in costs is not lost on Finnish experts. STUK’s Jussi Heinonen observes that as the regulator “we need to have enough understanding about licensees’ concerns and viewpoints to make pragmatic and good regulatory decisions,” and that “It is important that licensees can trust clear and consistent regulations.”
Indeed, one solution to repeated delays and mounting costs in nuclear new build would be “to have lock-in regulations for projects so that no significant changes are made mid-project,” Partanen argues. “In the end, strict regulations are not as big a source of cost increases as commonly assumed. It’s changes to regulations and uncertainty over these regulations that can cause delays,” he adds. “But delays can also be the fault of constructors or vendors, for example due to an unfinished design when construction started, as happened with the Olkiluoto 3, Flamanville and Vogtle plants.”
Another solution, Partanen says, would involve “harmonizing regulations across countries so that nuclear designs would not need significant redesigns for each country and reactor.”
A harmonizing of international regulations is especially long overdue as some widely accepted nuclear safety measures make little practical sense, Partanen stresses. “Take the required emergency safety zone around nuclear plants, which is currently fixed in many countries to many kilometers,” he explains.
“Meanwhile, coal plants can sit in city centers even though they kill tens of thousands of people each year in Europe alone,” he adds. “This mismatch especially disadvantages small nuclear reactors that could be used to be clean sources of lighting and heating in urban areas in countries like Finland.”
While Finland is an outlier in Europe in the way it so fully embraced nuclear energy at a time when countries like Germany are turning their back on it, the country is also a prime case study of regulatory pitfalls. Safety is crucial – and a stable regulatory framework would go a long way in making nuclear technology more affordable and attractive to more countries in their fight against climate change.