The £3bn child of Chernobyl

This is the first nuclear reactor commissioned in Europe since the Chernobyl disaster. It is £1.20 billion over budget, has 1,700 technical faults - and four are coming to Britain. Damon Syson was granted rare access to the OL3 plant in Finland to discover why we should all be holding our breath

By Damon Syson for MailOnline

OL3 plant

The last sign on the road to Olkiluoto warns motorists to ‘Beware Of The Elk’. I don’t see any elks on my way to the first new nuclear reactor to have been planned in Western Europe since Chernobyl.

The 25-minute drive from the tiny town of Pori in south-west Finland is notable only for the unremitting flanks of pine and, eventually, a huddle of huts. These are temporarily home to 2,000-odd foreign construction workers currently engaged on the continent’s largest civil engineering project.

A few miles further on we reach a 10ft high fence topped with razorwire and heavily guarded main gates. Like all visitors, we get out of our vehicle at the security checkpoint at Olkiluoto, hand over our passports and walk through metal detectors. Workers are breathalysed, too.

Past the barriers and back in the car, we drive slowly along a deserted lane, turn a corner and see the base of a vast concrete dome surrounded by a forest of extraordinarily tall red tower cranes.

This is Olkiluoto 3 (OL3), an ultra-modern European Pressurised-water Reactor (EPR), designed and built by French nuclear industry giant Areva NP.

The dome of the reactor is thick enough to withstand the impact of a fully fuelled 747

Once completed, the reactor building will be strong enough to withstand the direct impact of a fully fuelled 747. The walls, already 34m high, will eventually reach 63m at its apex, which is one-and-a-half times the height of the Royal Albert Hall.

Because temperatures here can drop to  –30°C and beyond, and Finnish regulations stipulate that no exterior work can be carried out below –16°C, in the dark, harsh winters they build a huge temporary structure around the works and heat it. There are 2,800 workers from 43 different nations here – safety signs around the site are in a number of languages including English, German, French, Finnish and Polish.

As we walk around the bustling site, a sense of urgency permeates. Concrete pouring rigs swoop perilously above my hard hat and I’m nearly barged out of the way by people hurrying past carrying metal rods or preposterously long spirit levels.

Apart from the aggressive weekly project deadlines, there’s also the spectre of another bitter winter drawing in. The man charged with running this monumental project, Philippe Knoche, talks of a ‘cathedral-building spirit’ among his staff.

The first large heavy components to go inside the dome are set to arrive here from Areva’s manufacturing plant in Chalon-sur-Saône in France before the end of the year. They will be delivered to a specially built jetty made of 13,000 cubic metres of concrete, which took four days to pour. There is only a small window for delivery because by December the sea will have frozen to a depth of one metre thick.

Areva Nuclear Plant of La Hague

Unusually, the dome’s roof will be completed before the heavy components arrive. Instead of being craned in from above they will be passed through an enormous circular hatch in the side of the dome. Given that the largest component weighs 550 tons and is nearly seven metres in diameter, this is a phenomenally tricky operation. To give an idea of scale, the fuselage of a Boeing 767 would fit inside the EPR’s upper steam dome.

Transporting components is a major challenge in itself. Most have to be delivered by sea because they are simply too heavy to arrive by any other means. To carry them by road needs a vehicle with 100 wheels to spread the load and, even then, few roads can take the weight. Air transport is a tricky option, too – in 2004, Areva sent some equipment in a Russian Antonov aircraft, but the plane could only take half its normal fuel load in order to accommodate the weight.

But beyond the Dorling-Kindersley figures, OL3 is special for another reason.

In 1986, the Chernobyl explosion produced 400 times more fallout than was released at Hiroshima. It sent a radioactive cloud across a vast area of Eastern and Western Europe. Nuclear power plant construction has been in a 20-year coma ever since.

With oil and gas now politically and economically awkward, nuclear is back in the form of this EPR. And it will be the blueprint for an army of new reactors across Europe, likely to start in Britain, where up to six sites have been earmarked for development. Yet OL3 has been dogged by glitches.

The EPR design is an evolution from existing French and German reactors, and marketed as the safest and most efficient design on the market. It is also the first of a kind – and therefore untested in the real world.

Even Areva employees admit the situation in Finland is proving to be a ‘difficult first birth’ and a ‘steep learning curve’. A major problem has been the lack of  specialist suppliers, as well as welders and engineers.

Areva employs 68,000 people globally but now it’s rapidly increasing its staff numbers by 12,000 a year. As one Areva employee tells me, ‘Our retirement policy has gone from, “How do you fancy early retirement?” to “See you tomorrow back at work.”’

All eyes are now on this hidden corner of Finland. When it fires up, all Europe will be holding its breath.

‘Areva’s EPR technology is becoming a byword for incompetence, massive delays, spiralling costs and questionable engineering. We only have a limited time and budget to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change and we should stop pouring money down the nuclear black hole.’

Greenpeace’s bald statement against OL3 is not a lone voice. The project is already two years behind schedule and is an estimated £1 billion over its original budget of £2 billion. On top of that there’s the wasted potential revenue from two years of lost electricity production.

Concrete for the base of the reactor building was ‘the wrong sort’ – too porous. The welding of the steel containment liner didn’t pass muster. Components have had to be returned to suppliers. Such complications play into the hands of environmental groups who say the delays, glitches and cost over-runs are indicators that the nuclear industry cannot be trusted to deliver safe, affordable plants.

‘The whole thing is a fiasco,’ claims Ben Ayliffe, Senior Nuclear Campaigner for Greenpeace UK.

‘It’s no good simply coming up with promises and bland assertions. The main selling point of the EPR was that it was supposed to be tried and tested technology. If that’s the case, how come in Finland there have been 1,700 documented glitches?’

Neil Crumpton of Friends Of The Earth says, ‘In Britain we have a major renewable energy resource around our coast. We’ve got huge potential in offshore wind, wave and tidal power; we’ve got ample scope for improving energy efficiency.

'There are lots of things we can do in Britain without having to go down the route of building new power stations. Instead of importing a French nuclear industry we ought to be building a British renewables industry.’

Knoche, Areva’s project director, whose job is to get OL3 back on course and up and running by 2011, is disarmingly frank about what has happened. At the beginning of our meeting he hands me a document that lists OL3’s construction problems – although he prefers to call them ‘challenges’.

‘Our policy is open hands,’ he says. He admits that the biggest problem so far has been finding sub-contractors who are up to the modern nuclear industry’s exacting standards.

‘At present we have over 1,000 suppliers. That is too many. There are a limited number of contractors able to do the work. This will take time to change – but future NPPs (nuclear power plants) will use the experience of OL3 going forward.’

Yet one of Greenpeace’s major claims is that far from insisting on the highest quality, Areva has tried to claw back some of its lost money by using cheap suppliers. OL3’s steel liner, for example, was provided by a Polish company more accustomed to building ships. 

nuclear power station

The only time Knoche looks angry is when I put this accusation to him. ‘Look, I can accept that there have been problems with our time schedule but as far as quality is concerned this is unacceptable. It is nearly racism to say we bought some things in certain countries and therefore they are poor quality.’

Even so, 1,700 non-conformances does seem a lot. ‘This is a classic argument from our opponents,’ says Knoche, exasperated. ‘First, we don’t agree with all of them, but even if we accept these figures, a lot are related to documentation irregularities. When it comes to actual products it is a very low percentage.

Remember that on this plant you have 30km (18 miles) of large-bore pipes; you have 250,000 cubic metres of concrete. And remember that we have never had to break any concrete that has already been poured.’

For Areva, OL3 is a loss leader – a costly but necessary means of getting the ball rolling. And while Finland is the testing-ground, the focus is soon to move to the UK.

‘With the high price of oil and gas, countries have to invest in either renewing nuclear fleets or building new ones,’ says Robert Davies, Areva’s UK marketing manager.

‘The UK is the first country in Europe to have adopted a fleet replacement policy. The UK is a springboard to Europe. Whoever builds in the UK will roll out in Europe – they want to gain experience in Britain and take that experience back to their home market.’

After years of dithering, the UK Government is now under pressure to come up with a viable plan to meet our future power needs. And the argument for nuclear power is becoming persuasive.

Where once nuclear power was rejected for being too costly, the dramatic rise in energy prices has made it competitive once again. Concern about global energy security after the crisis in Georgia and growing hostilities with Russia has only furthered pressure to make our country as self-sufficient as possible. Add on penalties for not meeting CO2 emission targets, and the fact that nuclear is practically zero-carbon makes it even more attractive financially.

Nuclear power plants are fuelled by uranium, which is relatively abundant and mined in reassuringly stable countries such as Australia and Canada. Volumes are small so even if there is a price hike, it has a minimal effect on the running costs of the plants. Fourth-generation plants are also being developed – in theory they will use approximately eight times less uranium, but they are unlikely to be with us before 2040.

Passing the Geiger counters, I descend deeper into the three-billion-year-old bedrock

The UK, of course, is already nuclear. Around one-fifth of our electricity is currently provided by 19 power stations dotted around the British Isles. But most of these are due to close over the coming decade.

By 2023 only Sizewell B will still be operational. Because of their higher output (1,600 megawatts as opposed to 600–900 megawatts), we only need six or seven EPRs to replace our existing fleet.

The UK’s new wave of power stations will almost certainly be built on the sites of existing ones, such as Hinckley and Sizewell, because they are closest to centres of population, and situated in areas where the local community already accepts nuclear power – they know a new plant would mean steady jobs for 60 years.

However, even if we were to start building now, the earliest we could have our own EPR would be 2017, and that is assuming that construction is not delayed by a lack of skilled workers or components, or by safety issues. By then, critics claim, there is the very real possibility we could be facing blackouts.

Passing the Geiger counters, I make my way through the control room and into the mouth of the tunnel. The ramp descends at a 1:10 gradient, corkscrewing deeper and deeper into Finland’s three-billion-year-old granite bedrock. Even just a few metres down, the temperature begins to drop. There is silence apart from our footsteps and nothing to look at but jagged rock and the occasional flash of vivid green moss. I’m about to see Olkiluoto’s answer to the thorniest problem of them all: how it disposes of its own waste.

Even though our destination is only 60m below ground level, the walk takes longer than you’d imagine. By the time the ramp levels off and opens out into a large chamber with a crane rig on the ceiling my calf muscles are beginning to ache. Beneath our feet there are two huge silos stretching down a further 40m, containing compacted steel drums packed in concrete boxes. First opened in 1992, these silos are currently about half full. They’re good for another 30 years.

The OL3 dome under construction

The OL3 dome under construction

This is the final repository for low and intermediate level operational waste from the exisiting nuclear power stations, Olkiluoto 1 and Olkiluoto 2, which stand alongside the new EPR. It contains metal scrap, uniforms, contaminated tools and the ion-exchange resins used to purify water, but it does not contain spent fuel – the radioactive material we tend to think of as ‘nuclear waste’.

At present, all the spent fuel created by OL1 and OL2 over the past two decades is sitting in a large pool next to the power stations (water acts as an insulator against radioactivity).

A mile down the road from OL3 there’s more excavation work going on – the Finns are busy building the world’s first Deep Final Repository, which will make the ramp I’ve just walked down seem like a mere rabbit-hole. This enormous network of tunnels will stretch up to half a mile below the surface, and it’s where all the country’s spent fuel will be deposited. Once there, it will remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

According to a Government White Paper, UK communities are being invited to put in a request to be the site of our own Deep Final Repository, subject to geological research. In return they will benefit from jobs and investment, not to mention a ‘community benefits package’.

Greenpeace is cynical: ‘What’s that going to be – we build you a leisure centre and in exchange you’ll have a load of radioactive stuff sitting beneath you?’

But it has already worked here in Finland. Indeed the Finns pragmatically insisted on having a solution for waste – and the money in place – before they proceeded with building the new power station. Once the decision was made, two communities battled it out for the right to host the waste repository. Olkiluoto won.   

When it’s in operation in 12 years’ time, used fuel assemblies will be taken from the reactor and placed in steel shells, which in turn will be placed inside 4.8m long, 5cm-thick copper canisters  (copper is extremely resistant to corrosion). These are then buried in holes bored into the rock.

Studies have taken into account what would happen if we had a new Ice Age; they have also considered the possibility of the Earth being flooded.  The holes in the rock are lined with bentonite clay, which expands on contact with water and creates a seal, meaning there is no possibility of radiation leaking out. Construction of this underground facility, known as Onkalo (the ‘cave’) began in 2004. They’ve already drilled 300m down and geological tests are looking favourable, but the repository won’t be fully operational until 2020.

How we deal with our own waste is a worrying omen of how far behind we are, given that our much-vaunted nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield has not been fully working for three years. In the meantime, our spent fuel just sits and waits – all four Olympic swimming-pools worth.  

The sundeck of the Olkiluoto visitor centre overlooks the construction site. I am told by the company that the area is very popular with salmon fishermen, who feed their catch to their families without hesitation.

A lone wind turbine stands incongruously on the bank, looking like a flimsy toy beside the bulk of the nuclear power plants.

I ask why a nuclear power company operates a wind turbine. Martin Landtman, OL3 Project Director for the Finnish consortium overseeing the building of the plant, begins by talking about ‘understanding wind power’ and ‘gaining operational experience’.

He then casually drops in the fact that you would need 6,000 of these windmills to equal one EPR.

‘In the space of two hours,’ he says with a wolfish smile, ‘OL3 will produce as much electricity as that wind turbine produces in a year.

‘In this time of unstable global geopolitics, all countries are recognising the importance of being self-sufficient. But what to do? There has been intense debate for the past ten years about this. The answer’s not fossil, not hydro and not import. What remains? Only nuclear. If there was something as safe, as clean, as competitive, we would have done it. But the alternatives are not there.’


The European Pressurised-water Reactor at Olkiluoto is the first nuclear power plant of its type to be built in the world. In a conventional nuclear power station, a reactor core  produces - and controls the release of - energy by splitting the atoms of elements such as uranium and plutonium. The energy released as heat from continuous fission of the atoms in the fuel is used, via the steam generator, to make steam. The steam is then used to drive the turbines, which produce electricity.

The EPR, however, has four steam generators, making it vastly more powerful - it can produce 1,600 megawatts where a conventional nuclear power plant produces just 600 . It is also more efficient, as it uses less uranium. The key difference, though, is safety...


The probability of an accident occurring with an EPR is said to be one-in-ten million and even then it would be contained.

'What is revolutionary about the EPR can be summed up in one word: Chernobyl,' says Bertrand Barre, Areva's scientific advisor. 'Before Chernobyl, the safety philosophy was that the risk of core meltdown (overheating after a system failure, releasing radioactivity into the air) must be so low that it was "acceptable". After Chernobyl, the decision was made that no, it's not acceptable.


Now safety authorities say, "Whatever the risk, demonstrate that if the worst happens and you have a full core meltdown, you will not have a massive radioactivity release."'

The key safety features of the Finnish EPR include what is called 'double containment' (1), a doublethickness concrete skin with a steel liner, which guarantees that no kind of gas can escape. In the event of meltdown the EPR deals with it using its 'core catcher' (2) which channels the molten core into a basin lined with heat-resistant material, where it is immersed in water (which insulates against radioactivity).

The various safety systems are housed in 'bunkerised' buildings (3) on either side of the reactor building, each protected by a reinforced concrete hull; the idea is that at all times at least one safety system stays working.


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