Wednesday February 21, 2024

Reforming the utilisation and regulation of nuke energy

Published : 01 Sep 2023, 19:30

  By Juho Korteniemi
Juho Korteniemi. Photo: Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.

This year, more than 40 per cent of Finnish electricity is produced with nuclear energy. In the future, nuclear energy can also be produced in smaller units and used for new purposes, such as heating industry and buildings. A new outlook for the sector's activities requires a new approach also in the administration.

I started as Deputy Director General, Nuclear Energy and Fuels at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment about three months ago. I have spent a significant part of this time in discussions with internal and external stakeholders. I will share my thoughts based on my first observations in this column.

Building the future on a solid foundation

Nuclear energy plays an important role in Finland's electricity production, and we are a pioneer in nuclear waste management. Finland has created strong expertise in the sector in companies, research institutes and administration alike. The starting points for development are stable and on a good foundation.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment is responsible for the supreme management and supervision of nuclear energy regulation. In addition, the Ministry prepares licence decisions for nuclear energy projects. The valid licences enable the use of the existing nuclear power plant units far into the future.

Currently underway is the processing of the operating license application for the used nuclear fuel final disposal facility, Onkalo, which is also of global interest. The project is the first in the world of such kind.

The road is also open for any new projects. According to the Government Programme, the Government will approve all new applications for authorization in principle that meet the criteria and in which the applicants' background is acceptable from the point of view of national security.

Finland is known globally as a successful user of nuclear energy. Finnish core expertise can be commercialised globally, which is why we should continue to promote our international visibility in this field. Finland also has high-quality research funded nationally and from EU funds. High-quality research should be continued to ensure safety and seize the sector's growth potential.

Energy markets offer opportunities and challenges for nuclear energy

The situation of the energy market is interesting from the perspective of nuclear energy. Many trends, such as the electrification of energy consumption and the hydrogen economy, create a need for nuclear energy. At the same time, highly cost-effective and rapidly growing renewable energy production, including reductions in fossil fuel prices in some parts of the world, have intensified the competitive situation between different technologies. The price of electricity varies more than before, and the production of nuclear energy must adapt to this.

Indeed, the success of nuclear energy in this competition is no longer based on the lowest operational production costs among different forms of energy or necessarily even lower total costs. Its greatest strength lies in its ability to produce energy steadily, regardless of weather. The production costs of nuclear energy are also fairly stable relative to the use of fossil fuels, for example. The crises of recent years have concretised these benefits.

Energy security and predictability of costs have always been important for both businesses and citizens, and they will certainly continue to be so in the future. Nuclear energy can cut price peaks and shorten the duration of extremely high electricity prices. Nuclear energy also plays a crucial role in how self-sufficient Finland is in times of peak electricity consumption.

In the future, nuclear energy can be used in smaller units and for new purposes, such as industrial and district heating. Heating of industry and society is a very important form of energy consumption. Hydrogen solutions are also progressing. The above are examples of applications for the future use of nuclear energy.

High acceptability has put nuclear energy regulation on the political agenda

The societal acceptability of the use of nuclear energy has always been an important for nuclear energy. In Finland, the popularity of nuclear energy is at its highest ever. This also creates a positive outlook for the comprehensive development of regulation that takes into account new solutions, such as small modular reactors.

For decades, the declared role of nuclear energy has been rather limited in both domestic government programmes and EU policy. Public debate has taken place around individual projects, but most of the development of regulation has been carried out as rather technical exercises. This is no longer the case; the Programme of Prime Minister Petteri Orpo's Government provides clear guidelines for developing nuclear power regulation.

According to the Government Programme, the Nuclear Energy Act and the provisions implementing it will be reformed by 2026 at the latest. A number of details are linked to this comprehensive reform, such as permit processes and regulations on the location of plants. The act obliges operators and is particularly related to the official duties of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment and the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority. In accordance with the Government Programme, nuclear energy legislation will be developed taking into account new solutions, but in such a way that nuclear safety, international obligations and other essential issues will continue to be fully taken into account in the future.

The Government Programme also outlines the promotion of nuclear energy in the EU. According to the programme, nuclear energy can be actively promoted in the EU to ensure technology-neutral treatment of nuclear energy. Finland alone cannot significantly influence EU regulation, but this is very possible as part of the continuously growing group of so-called like-minded nuclear energy Member States. In an increasing number of European countries, public opinion and the political climate are more favorable with nuclear energy than before. This may be reflected in better treatment of nuclear energy in the EU's target setting and regulation over the next few years. Influencing the EU is important in order to develop the operating environment of the nuclear energy sector in a predictable manner.

While opportunities for influencing in the EU are constantly opening up, a larger subject matter is the preparation and subsequent implementation of the EU's climate and energy targets for 2040. The current Commission has already begun this work, but a more significant responsibility will remain for the term of the new Commission, which will begin its work after the European elections next spring. The key question is whether the perspective of technology neutrality is successful. In the next few weeks, the European Commission is also expected to submit a proposal for an update of the Euratom safeguards regulation.

According to the Government Programme, resources for nuclear energy regulation and SMR development will be secured at the Ministry and the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority. In practice, the policy will probably be implemented in the budget from 2024 onwards. At least from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment's point of view this policy is welcome, as at the Ministry nuclear energy policy is being prepared by a very limited number of civil servants. As resources grow, it must, of course, be ensured that they are used in a manner that improves the decision-making capacity of the administration, improving efficiency and quality.

We do our best – the markets plays a decisive role

The outlook for nuclear energy has changed as the energy market has changed. These challenges the entire administration related to nuclear energy to reform regulation and develop its processes so that the development of the sector can be continued from new starting points.

At the Ministry, we aim to do our best to make public administration an enabler of development, even an accelerator. Good discussions, including debates, will really be needed in the coming months to lead development to new kinds of gangs. The idea is, of course, that the business community will continue to be responsible in taking initiatives on new nuclear energy projects.

Note: The writer is Head of Unit (Nuclear Energy and Fuels) in the Energy Department of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.