Nuclear industry touts safety of new reactors
And that's not only because Finland is seismically stable.
The 1,600-megawatt European Pressurized Reactor projected to come online in 2013 in Olkiluoto, 195 miles (315 kilometers) northwest of Helsinki, is the first of its kind expected to begin operating after the Japanese disaster.
It has walls thick enough to withstand an airplane crash, components designed to tolerate the extreme cold of the Nordic winter, and decades worth of new safety systems.
"(We have) so many backup systems that the kind of accident like in Japan could not happen," said project manager Jouni Silvennoinen.
With the renaissance of nuclear power at stake, the atomic industry faces the challenge of persuading an increasingly skeptical public that new reactors like the EPR units being built by French company Areva in Finland, France and China are not just safer than the old ones but are virtually disaster-proof.
The state-controlled company has marketed its expensive new-generation reactor technology to the United States and developing countries from India to Saudi Arabia and Brazil. Since news of Japan's catastrophe, Areva's shares have fallen 12.4 percent, trading at euro31.49 midday Friday.
Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon has said an EPR plant would have survived the earthquake and tsunami without radiation leaks. And French Energy Minister Eric Besson, whose country gets up to 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, insisted last week it was his "profound conviction that nuclear energy will stay in Europe and the world and be one of the core energies in the 21st century."
But that's a tough message to sell, with explosions and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Japan eroding confidence in nuclear power. That confidence took decades to rebuild following the Soviet Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania.
Shocked by the Japanese crisis, the European Union has called for "stress tests" for its 143 reactors. Germany — the EU's biggest economy — has temporarily suspended plans to prolong the life of its aging nuclear plants and had already planned to abandon nuclear power altogether over the next 25 years. President Barack Obama, while expressing support for nuclear power, requested a comprehensive review of the safety of U.S. plants.
Even China, which plans a massive expansion of nuclear energy, has said it will hold off on approving new nuclear plants to allow for a revision in safety standards.
Suggesting that third-generation reactors like the EPR would have withstood the shock that crippled the Japanese plant is "sheer arrogance," said Mycle Schneider, an independent researcher on France's nuclear industry.
"There's no way we can say today that any plant in the world would have survived what happened in Japan," he said.
At the Fukushima plant, which began operating in 1971, the massive earthquake and tsunami damaged the critical cooling system, which overheated and began spewing radiation into the environment. For the first time, nuclear engineers were forced to head off a total reactor meltdown at three reactors simultaneously as well as dealing with overheating fuel rods in a damaged storage pool at a fourth reactor.
So how could a modern reactor have avoided those problems?
The principle of power generation is the same as in older high-pressure water reactors like the ones at Fukushima: nuclear reaction heats water to create steam that turns turbines to generate electricity. But technological advances have improved efficiency and stricter safety precautions have made the third-generation reactors more secure, industry officials say.
New EPR plants have backup systems like diesel generators that are housed in separate buildings to protect them from any accident that might occur in the main reactor building. The plant must also have access to other sources of electricity, like gas turbines or the national grid, if the diesel generators fail to work.
At Olkiluoto, four large diesel generators act as a backup if the first step of connecting to the national grid proves unsuccessful. If they don't work, two smaller diesel generators kick in, and failing that, the new reactor can be connected to the joint backup systems of two older reactors at Olkiluoto.
There are also new "protective barriers" shielding the environment from radioactive products used in the reactor. These include encasing the fuel rods in thick metal containers and having a double concrete cover and walls over the containment vessel that houses the reactor.
Besides natural disasters, modern reactors worldwide must be able to withstand terror strikes and — since 9/11 — even a large airliner crash, Silvennoinen said.
Situated just 200 yards (meters) from the frozen Baltic Sea, the Olkiluoto nuclear plant is elevated so that it can withstand storm surges of up to 11 feet (3.5 meters), which is considered a worst-case scenario.
During a recent visit, dozens of workers in yellow vests clambered up and down stairs of the concrete buildings bordering the cylinder-shaped reactor as construction cranes swerved over its domed roof.
Since Olkiluoto is the first EPR scheduled to become operational, it has been seen as a flagship for the latest generation of nuclear reactors. But the project has been plagued by faulty materials and planning problems since construction began in 2005, and it's now running four years behind schedule.
The nearby town of Eurajoki, population 6,000, in the middle of Finland's sparsely populated countryside, has welcomed the project. It has created 4,000 jobs, even though 70 percent of them went to foreign workers.
Teijo Jantunen, who lives near the town, 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Olkiluoto, conceded that the problems at Fukushima had made him think about the possibility of a nuclear accident.
"But I'm not really very worried. I'm confident it will be a good plant," said Jantunen, a 57-year-old construction manager. "I trust them despite everything."
Leo Mantymaki, who lives 6 miles (10 kilometers) away, doesn't quite know what to believe.
"They tell us that a Japan-like accident couldn't happen here, but I'm not so sure," the retired welder said, sitting on a tractor as he took a break from clearing snow. "What if they press the wrong button?"
Jukka Laaksonen, director of Finland's Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, stressed that safety features must be designed according to local conditions, and said a major flaw at Fukushima was that its seawall was too low.
"EPR has much better safety systems than old similar plants but having a good plant is not enough," Laaksonen said. "You also have to pay attention to the site conditions. If the EPR is not properly protected against a tsunami ... then you never know what will happen."
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.