What the Finnish municipal elections tell, and don’t tell, about nuclear power?

Thanks to an article in Forbes, a growing number of energy enthusiasts now knows that there have been pro-nuclear Green candidates in the recent (9th April) Finnish municipal elections. However, some background may be helpful.

First, as some commentators have already noted, the election shouldn’t be overplayed. The municipal elections are local affairs, and due to Finnish election system, parties have an incentive to gather as many candidates as they can to their lists. This results to a large and diverse group of candidates: in total, 33 318 candidates were registered in a country of 5.5 million people to compete for 7316 available seats. All sorts of opinions were represented, and the fact that a hundred candidates signed a petition of some sorts doesn’t by itself prove anything.

Second, most of the candidates who signed the nuclear district heating petition were not elected. Only 11 signatories were ultimately elected, and of those, only two (Atte Harjanne and Petrus Pennanen in Helsinki) have even theoretical possibility to influence energy policies so that nuclear district heating is actually adopted.

Third, it is a fact that traditionally anti-nuclear Greens were the biggest winners of the elections, overall. Energy policy in general is not a topic that motivates people that much, and these elections were not energy elections by any measure. The voters expressed disapproval of the government policies (the three right-wing and center-right parties in the government were among the losers of these elections) and most were motivated by local issues. In general, these elections by themselves provide precious little information – either way – about energy policies of Finland, or of the prospects of nuclear energy. For now, Finland’s nuclear program is unlikely to be expanded: two reactors are under construction, the much-maligned Olkiluoto 3 being scheduled (for now) to go online in 2018, and the new Fennovoima plant in 2025. There is a possibility of a seventh plant to be built, most probably by Fortum as a replacement for aging Loviisa reactors, but at the same time, the four old reactors at Loviisa and Olkiluoto (two each) are nearing the end of their economic lifetimes and are to be shut down in the 2030s. The electricity prices in the Nordic market (Nordpool) are so depressed that new projects are unlikely to be financially viable, unless more aggressive carbon policies are enacted. This seems unlikely, as the country is still run by a government composed of right-wing or center right parties, and the next national elections are not due until 2019. Even though the current government is generally favorable to new nuclear, it therefore seems unlikely (although not impossible) that anyone will make an official request for permit by that time. In a way, nothing has changed, and this is a storyline the traditional Greens and the traditional environmental movement is likely to stick to in case someone asks.

However, in several ways these elections were nevertheless remarkable. I don’t know of any other European elections where Green party members could openly campaign on an openly pro-nuclear platform, and in any other country, I wouldn’t want to try: disapproval would be certain, disavowal probable, expulsion likely. This year in Finland, several Green candidates, some of them long-time party members and established environmentalists, were very open about their support for nuclear power, and from what I hear, were not censured at all for their opinion. That alone is a major first. Even though the Finnish Green party has for years harboured a sizeable minority (according to one estimate by a party veteran Osmo Soininvaara, up to 30 percent) that could accept nuclear power at least under some circumstances, to my knowledge this minority has not campaigned openly for more nuclear power.

As I mentioned in a previous post, perhaps the most interesting item is the strong showing of Green party member Mr. Atte Harjanne. His vote tally, 937 votes, is close to phenomenal for a relatively unknown first-time candidate, and it may be that we’re witnessing a political star being born. Atte has many other qualities and was not elected because of his nuclear stance, and being openly pro-nuclear, even openly pro-Fennovoima, probably even cost him some votes. However, I nevertheless suspect that being a pro-nuclear Green did ultimately favor him a bit in balance, even though it alone wouldn’t been close to enough to carry the election. Several other pro-nuclear Green candidates came close to being elected, some gathering quite considerable vote counts, and many were elected as vice-councilors, a position of some importance in most places.

That said, all this is but a handful of politicians and some thousands of voters at most. However, all change starts small, and this might be a weak signal the futurists are looking for. We now have a serious environmental organization, the Finnish Ecomodernist Society, that favors using all the tools – nuclear power included – against climate change; and now we have politicians who are genuinely pro-environment while also being genuinely pro-nuclear. This also reflects the fact that the Finnish Greens are becoming a generalist party and a viable alternative for traditional major parties: a generalist party cannot afford to have a strict stance in a matter as important as nuclear power is for Finland, even though a small environmentalist party might get away with it. (It should be noted that the Finnish Green party jettisoned long ago its old demand for an immediate closure of Finnish nuclear power plants, and that its official program now admits that closures should be avoided if that leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions. It is still solidly against any new-builds, however, and officially still pretends that vastly increased biomass use, despite mounting evidence of environmental hazards, is one solution for Finland’s energy worries.)

At the same time, mounting evidence suggests that the energy tribalists have been wrong all along: despite promising progress of renewable energy, we are more likely than not to need nuclear energy as well, if we wish to limit climate change to a level where it is not an existential threat to our civilization. On the other hand, it is also clear that absent major change in the way we can build nuclear power, we are definitely going to need a lot of renewables and more effective Green policies as well.

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About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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2 Responses to What the Finnish municipal elections tell, and don’t tell, about nuclear power?

  1. Great article Janne , we pro-Nuclear in Ireland admire the little shoots of a possible change in policy evidenced by you ( perhaps a bit more pragmatic ) Finns , especially so as our countries are of a similar size ( ~5M pop )

    • Thanks! I think the day for more pragmatic environmental policies will come when the 1960s generation finally retires or dies. Young people seem to be much more open for pragmatic policies, and they have not been traumatised by the Cold War anti-nuclear weapons campaigns. But we must keep the idea alive and in discussion until such a moment when it can be enacted as a policy.

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