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Unveiling Nordic Innovations

Does the Nordic Nuclear Industry Really Want to Grow?

As your correspondent for forumNordic, I was invited to cover the Nordic Nuclear Forum24 here in Helsinki.

The first day, dealt with the Future of the Nuclear Industry, with some excellent presentations from the following top speakers:

Laurent Kueny, Energy Director, The Ministry of Economics, France

Chris Barton, Trade Commissioner to Europe, UK

Petteri Tippana, Director General, STUK 

Petra Lundström, EVP Nuclear Generation, Fortum 

Johan Svenningsson, CEO, Uniper Sweden

Jouni Silvennoinen, Project Director, TVO

Torbjörn Wahlborg, Senior EVP, Generation, Vattenfall

The message from all was rather unanimous – hardly surprising given that they represent the big nuclear plant side of the industry in the Nordics, UK and in France. Only one different and rather refreshing comment came from STUK’s Tippana – more of that below!

Here you can see the various plants in Sweden and Finland from Russia (really old plants with big renovations ongoing), from Sweden’s ASEA ATOM, and the latest one from France’s EDF.

They all want to build new big plants here in the Nordics, France and in the UK because of the need to decarbonise production and because of increasing demand for electricity from data centres, transport, and AI.

Without meeting these needs there is a risk that key investments in AI and in data centres will not be made in the EU, and that heavy industry will relocate themselves where base-load electricity at a reasonable price is available. There is also a further important reason – we need to wean ourselves off Russian fuel.

The challenges of growth

The procurement process, which includes finding a site, planning, recruiting and training staff, and regulation to meet their safety requirements are time consuming and complex. Then there is also the important requirement to handle the renovation or decommissioning of old plants in the Nordics, UK, and in France. The demand for new skilled staff is enormous; in France alone they are looking to recruit at least 100,000 new engineers and technicians.

According to the speakers, the procurement from start to finish takes at least 10 years for any new nuclear plant, irrespective of whether it is located in the Nordics or elsewhere in Europe. To speed up this process, they want to have a common set of safety standards and common practices within the industry for all new plants. To some extent, it appears that this is in the early stages of being partially agreed upon at a recent conference in March this year, which is the result of ongoing negotiations that have been taking place over the past years.

The speakers also underlined that large industrial customers are demanding a supply of electricity that is both predictable in availability with a price that is not subject to high volatility. Investments will not be made if this supply is not available. 

It was interesting that none of the speakers spoke favourably about investing in small modular reactors. They claimed that the regulatory requirements are similar for those of large nuclear plants, and therefore such investments are too expensive, given the heavy and costs of regulatory supervision.

Perhaps the most surprising challenge faced by the companies of the speakers, is that innovation appears to be viewed somewhat negatively because it involves heavy regulatory scrutiny from regulators, which naturally slows down the procurement process. In fact, your correspondent did not hear any mention of the word “innovation” in many times during their presentations.

Lots of emphasis is on prolonging the life of the older reactors, some of which are already some 40 to 50 years old and it is of course happening so long as it is cheaper than building new plants.

There was no mention of any new plants about to be built, but all of the speakers claimed that plans are afoot. It appears that government support is, in their opinion, a necessary element for the construction of new plants to move ahead. None of the companies are willing invest in new plants when taking on the full risk of future falling demand from customers. They say that the costs and resources needed to invest in new plants are so great that they appear unwilling to bear these risks on their own shoulders without such government support. 

The surprising remark from the Finnish regulator, STUK, was that it is up to the companies to come up with solutions that are safe, and it is not for the regulator to set demands to ensure that the plants are safe. He refuses to be blamed for delays. 

It is clear that the companies want to be given a safety manual from the regulator that simply sets out the construction requirements necessary to be fulfilled to ensure safety. This will never come from the regulator, according to STUK.

In closing, there was hardly a word about small nuclear reactors in any form, nor was there much talk about innovations. It is clear that the few start-ups present do not share this view and are ready to push for new innovative safe solutions that can be produced locally without complex supply chains from producers.

Perhaps this rather stagnant supply situation needs to be resolved by a change in management of the incumbents, or something else that can stop them blaming over-zealous regulators. As the saying goes – when the big incumbents get too big, then they may begin spending too much time protecting their vested interests. Competition is a necessary element that appears to be missing from this sector. Perhaps some of the smaller players can be allowed to grow a little faster to act as a wake-up call. 

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