I haven’t really looked at developments in energy for a while. So it’s high time to look around to see what’s happening.
While a number of nuclear power plants are being constructed in China, the direct relevance for Australia’s energy future is somewhat limited. From a political and financial perspective, Western examples are likely to be far more instructive. As such, the two nuclear reactors under construction in Europe at the moment – EPR reactors built by French giant AREVA in Oikiluoto, Finland, and Flamanville, France, are of considerable interest.
The first of these, Oikiluoto 3, has been a bit of a stuff-up, to be honest. It was supposed to be finished in 2009, but, at best, it will be completed some time in 2012, with multi-billion dollar cost overruns. TVO – the Finnish reactor customer, and AREVA, the French supplier, are preparing to have their contractual disputes arbitrated, with the fate of those billions at stake. The issues? Fundamental problems with the technology? More like general sloppiness in an environment where regulators are (rightly) checking for i-dotting and t-crossing. Stupid stuff – not making sure welders were qualified. Areva simply hasn’t managed the project well enough.
Frankly, none of this is entirely surprising. The industry has been largely dormant for 20 years. The first new reactors were never going to be built without hiccups. The question is whether Areva (and possibly the Finnish regulator, who may not be entirely blameless) learn from their mistakes – and get the chance to. When you’re making mistakes at a few billion Euro a go, you don’t get too many chances.
But here’s where it takes an interesting turn. You’d reckon that the whole experience might have put the Finns off the idea of nuclear power. You’d be wrong. The government – subject to parliamentary approval which they appear to have the numbers for – have just issued another pair of licences to build two more plants, and it seems that various companies are lining up to do so. It seems that Finland may have decided that nuclear is the least worst of all the limited alternatives available to a country with few domestic energy resources and limited potential for renewables.