Finland nuclear
Specialists work inside Olkiluoto-3 nuclear reactor in Eurajoki, Finland August 17, 2017. Image Credit: Reuters

Europe’s largest nuclear reactor just began to generate electricity on a commercial basis 14 years later than planned, delivering a boost to the region’s energy independence.

The 1,600-megawatt plant sitting on a rocky island that juts into the Baltic Sea on Finland’s west coast entered commercial operation in the early hours of Sunday. Olkiluoto-3 is the first new atomic reactor in the Nordic countries since the mid-1980s, and the first in its home nation in more than four decades.

Generating emission-free power for homes and businesses, the start coincides with a nuclear revival in Europe and the diversification of supplies away from Russia. France is among the leaders, just as the continent’s economic powerhouse, Germany, on Saturday disconnected its remaining three reactors from the grid to exit the technology altogether.

“We have seen this shift from many European countries to double down on energy security and ensure domestic supply after the invasion of Ukraine, and this new reactor will help a long way for Finland to achieve this,” said Fabian Skarboe Ronningen, a senior analyst at Rystad Energy AS.

Once set to be the world’s biggest reactor, the facility became a poster child of a nuclear industry promoting itself as a stable and virtually emissions-free power source as renewables expanded. Nuclear power had been out of fashion for years due to fears of accidents tainting the environment and on concerns over what to do with spent fuel, until worries over carbon dioxide emissions and climate change began to sway public opinion.

Finland, however, had bucked the trend, having planned its nuclear expansion without interruption since the early 2000s to overcome a lack of domestic supply of fossil energy and hydropower sources, plentiful in its Nordic neighbours.

Its owner Teollisuuden Voima Oyj also won parliament’s approval for a fourth unit, but ended up never building the project as it focused on getting the third reactor off the ground. Construction of Olkiluoto-3 began in 2005, but huge cost overruns and disputes between the operator and builders saw the start delayed many times from an original 2009 estimate. It was finally made critical “- that is its chain reaction started “- in December 2021 and the unit connected to the power grid in March 2022.

Fennovoima, a greenfield project with a reactor to be supplied by Gazprom, was terminated in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, state-controlled utility Fortum Oyj recently won permission to extend the lifespan of its two reactors on Finland’s south coast, and is looking into small modular reactors with a number of partners, including in Sweden, where the new government has opened the door to more nuclear power.

The three Olkiluoto units are set to produce almost a third of electricity generated in Finland.

“The opening of this unit will further strengthen the large net exporting role the Nordic region has to the continent,” especially combined with massive wind developments across Sweden, Finland and Denmark, said Rystad’s Ronningen. It will also help make prices more competitive for consumers, he said.

Finland is also building the world’s first permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel in Olkiluoto, deep into the bedrock. The facility will see encapsulated fuel stored in a network of tunnels that will eventually span 50 kilometers.

For Finland, Olkiluoto-3 brings welcome domestic production after electricity imports from Russia ended about a year ago amid the fallout from Russia’s war. The cold Nordic nation managed to avoid blackouts that officials had warned were likely this winter, thanks to a 7% reduction in consumption and with the help of relatively mild temperatures.

The mild weather also helped send Nordic power prices down, following the trend elsewhere in Europe. They are now roughly where they were before the energy crisis started.

“The commercial start has been longed for and will finally put an end to all the delays the project has suffered over the years,” said Arne Bergvik, an energy strategist at consultant Sigholm Tech AB.

“It will directly help to replace the loss of power imports from Russia and has already cut Finland’s import needs from Sweden,” he said. Overall, together with other new production capacity it will help to cut prices in Finland, but also the Nordic region, he said.