Articles of interest
13th June 2023
Book in Focus
The Politics of Nuclear Power in Finland
Trust at the Core?
By Lotta Inari Lounasmeri
This book offers a timely analysis of the Finnish political culture and is coming out in a pivotal moment with the recent developments in world and European politics. Finland’s decision to join NATO and give up building a nuclear power plant with Russian Rosatom, while promoting small nuclear facilities, makes looking into the historical and societal make-up of this country an essentially important task. This study offers a perspective on the collective belief systems and culture of trust in Finland, diving into a heavyweight political decision to build a new nuclear power plant.
As a small country and a young nation, Finland has always needed allies to turn to for cooperation and protection, whether political, military or economic. At the same time the country has constantly battled to retain its freedom and sovereignty. It has been necessary to try and offset vulnerability by resorting to the support and shelter of larger allies. Finland has traditionally built relations of trust and sought support from the Nordic countries and Russia, but also from Germany and further afield in Europe, even the United States, depending on cyclical conditions. The one constant element has been the drive for equilibrium: a kind of balancing act between east and west. This stance has now changed dramatically with Finland’s decision to join the NATO military alliance and thus abandon its traditional policy of neutrality.
In a sense it has been felt necessary to build up a kind of enforced trust. It has been based on different narratives ranging from assurances of friendship with Soviet leaders to self-portrayals as a diligent EU member state. Another response to the need for security has been to construct a national identity as one of the five Nordic countries. This historical context begs many questions: what are the core values the Finnish society stands by, and how are societal decisions arrived at? In my earlier studies, I have analyzed the historical culture of consensus in Finland. In the light of this current research, it seems this tradition still lives on strongly. In Finland, there exist sayings like ”Finland is a club” and ”The land of one truth”. As one looks at Finnish society today, it is difficult not to wonder whether the need for internal cohesion and external security overrides the values of independence, sovereignty and neutrality.
For this study, I chose energy policy as a field, as it is a strategic sector, and lies at the heart of a society’s sense of security. Growing instability in the international energy markets has drawn ever greater attention to questions of self-sufficiency and security of supply. Since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine, European energy dependence on Russia has become a question of increasing geopolitical interest, a question that is particularly pressing in Finland. Several factors have come together to change the energy equation: mounting pressures to abandon fossil energy sources, the need to increase energy self-sufficiency and at the same time secure access to inexpensive energy and satisfy industrial energy demand. For a long time now, a strong consensus within the Finnish energy elite on nuclear has continued to build. Today, questions of security and survival are gaining ever greater prominence.
A new nuclear company Fennovoima (est. 2007) was granted a Decision-in-Principle by the Finnish Parliament in 2010 to build a greenfield operation in Pyhäjoki (Sacred River), northern Finland. From the outset, the project was faced with seemingly overwhelming obstacles – financial and political – and was sent back to the drawing board several times, yet it refused to die. After the German company E.ON left the project, Russia’s state-owned atomic energy corporation Rosatom took over as a new constructor and part owner. The reasons that were given for persisting with the project did not seem to make much sense or were contradictory to say the least. Yet the official assurance was that it will all turn out to be right in the end and the project continued to steam ahead, until the spring of 2022, when the conflict in Ukraine escalated.
In the end, the construction work on the plant itself never materialized. It took years for Fennovoima to deliver the relevant safety documentation to the Finnish radiation safety authority STUK. As the paperwork was finally completed in March 2022, Minister of Economic Affairs and Employment Mika Lintilä announced that under the current circumstances, he would not present the construction licence issue to Parliament. By May the same year, Fennovoima terminated its contract with Rosatom, and withdrew its application from the Finnish Parliament. Even before the geopolitical upheavals in the winter of 2022, much of what has happened around Fennovoima has been hard for an outsider to understand. I set out to write this book because I was completely baffled, as a Finnish citizen and a social scientist, by the way that decision-making around energy issues seemed to work: it was as if there was an invisible force hovering in the background, driving matters inescapably in a certain direction, regardless of any obstacle or counterargument.
My aim with this book was to understand the Fennovoima case through interviews. I do this by creating a historical, cultural and social frame around the events, by drawing elements from people’s accounts, the ways in which they describe their relationship to events, other people and the surrounding society. Between 2017 and 2018 I interviewed 25 people who had been involved in the Fennovoima project: national and local level politicians, civil servants and public officials dealing with energy policy issues, energy companies’ management and employees, and NGO representatives. By interviewing people in positions of power, I wanted to know what kinds of beliefs they shared in the context of Fennovoima: Did they have a common narrative that mediated their values and attitudes? Did they acknowledge how their beliefs affected their decisions and the following consequences? What made them trust? To gain an active citizen’s perspective on decision-making, I also interviewed those who were opposed to building the nuclear power plant. How did they relate to the beliefs represented by this nuclear decision-making? Nuclear power has long been a divisive issue in Finland. If you are in favour, you will be counted in the pragmatic, level-headed camp; if you are against, you will likely be regarded as passionate and ideologically driven, maybe even a fanatic naysayer. As mentioned, there has long existed an adequate or even strong consensus on the use of nuclear energy among the elites. However, surveys have shown that many Finns still hesitate.
The Fennovoima story provides a backdrop for exploring the rules of community formation, common beliefs, and the system behind those beliefs. This exploration represents a research approach that combines ethnographic analysis, collective self-understanding and personal account. The story is told not only in my voice, but also in the voice of the interviewees whom I met and who were willing to share their experiences. The aim is to offer a compassionate way to understand societal decision-making that extends the traditional boundaries of social science and humanities research. This study brings heart and intuition into the analysis, to complement the rational and systematic approach of science. It is an exploration into the human culture of trust and as such a risk-taking, a step towards the unknown to better understand human nature and human communities. It is an effort to understand how power works through people.
The actual events around Fennovoima are presented in several phases. To begin with, we find a new company which was founded as a historical agreement around energy issues in Finland no longer seemed to work. Trust was damaged: no cheap energy was available to all the national actors who wanted it. In the next part, I recount how a new community was founded around Fennovoima, committed to solve the energy issue. In the third part, Fennovoima faces crises as the external conditions and internal reactions mount to trouble and the company is surrounded by growing distrust. In the end, I describe in detail the belief system, its elements and relationship with the decision-making system: a modern democracy.
The story of Finland’s nuclear decision is one, local and national narrative, but it no doubt also describes distinctive features of human political communities that could just as well be seen in democracies, tribal societies, monarchies and autocracies. The story also tells us something about a community’s decision-making system: in a democracy, one of its roles is to ensure adequate control over the exercise of power. For the system to adhere to its true values, those in power should respect its true purpose. Also, citizens should have the courage to think that they matter, that their views matter. Otherwise, one might find rust around the core.
Lotta Inari Lounasmeri is a Finnish social scientist specialized in the study of political culture. She earned her PhD from the University of Helsinki in 2010 and holds an MSc (Econ) from the Helsinki School of Economics. She has worked at the University of Helsinki between 2004 and 2022 as a Researcher, University Lecturer and Master’s Programme Director, receiving the title of Docent in 2019. Her most recent academic home has been the Centre for European Studies in Helsinki (2022). She has published scientific articles in the areas of political communication, political culture and media history in journals such as Journal of Contemporary European Studies, Journalism Practice, Media History and Cold War History, and has written and edited three books in Finnish: On the Trail of the National Culture of Consensus (2010), So We See the Neighbour–Images of Russia (2011), and The Wonder and Power of President Kekkonen (2016).
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