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19 October 2022

Letter from Helsinki: Finland’s challenge to Russia

From nuclear power to Nato, the Nordic nation is on the cusp of momentous change.

By Ido Vock

HELSINKI – It’s difficult to remain objective about people you’ve seen naked. This is one of the lessons I drew from my first evening in Finland, as I sat in a sauna sweating with two middle-aged energy industry executives. They were much more accustomed to Finland’s national pastime than me. I concentrated on not passing out from the sweltering heat as Jukka Relander of the Finnish Energy group half-joked about how Sweden, in the three centuries or so it ruled Finland, would fight its wars “to the last Finn”.

Big Finland’s propaganda tricks are subtle but devastatingly effective. Sitting nude in a darkened room with people you had just met inevitably builds a certain rapport with them, even if you were trying your best to maintain rigorous journalistic objectivity. I emerged from the sauna light-headed, primed for more of Finnish Energy’s spin over drinks in an adjacent meeting room. Finland is a world leader in nuclear energy. Finland’s climate targets are the most ambitious of any developed country. Dazed, with my critical faculties severely impaired, I took it all in.

I was there to see the changes Finland is making to its energy infrastructure. It aims to be the first developed country to hit net-zero carbon emissions, by 2035 – a decade and a half before the EU’s target (it’s not all spin). Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added geopolitical urgency to the objective. Finland was one of the first countries Russia ceased exporting electricity to in May. An expected shortfall across the EU, caused by Russia but exacerbated by problems with Norwegian hydropower and French nuclear, has left Finland scrambling to replace as much of the roughly 20 per cent of electricity it would usually import as it can before the winter.

“We are making up the shortfall with wind and nuclear, but questions remain about the reliability of both,” Riku Huttunen, the director-general of the energy department of Finland’s economy ministry, told me over a breakfast spread of Nordic classics such as reindeer liver paté (which is not bad). Alongside additional capacity, Finland is launching a public information campaign to urge citizens to conserve energy: for instance by turning down the heating a little. Some municipal saunas have even been closed.

Finland’s hopes of surviving the winter energy shortage have been bolstered by the near-completion of a third reactor at the Olkiluoto power plant in the west of the country, now in the final stages of testing. I visited during its pre-opening test phase, when the reactor was operating at full capacity, generating around 1,600 megawatts of power. The cavernous flood-lit hall was warm, heated by the steam rushing through four gigantic tubes connecting the turbine with the nuclear reactor. The platform holding the generator gently shook as the turbine spun, by itself producing enough for more than a million people’s electricity use.

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The terracotta-coloured plant sits on the shore of the Baltic Sea. Seawater is pumped into the system, cooling the hot steam before being dumped back into the sea. The cooling water is kept separate from the circuits that run into the reactor. “The water goes back into the sea about 9°C hotter, so there is virtually zero impact on the surrounding environment,” said Joha Pikkola, an engineer at the plant.

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The French-designed EPR reactor is scheduled to begin full operations in December. It is more than a decade behind schedule, though it could hardly be nearing completion at a more fortuitous time.

Alongside Europe’s newest and biggest reactor, the Olkiluoto site will host another first: a long-term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, where one of the most dangerous substances on Earth will be stored permanently. The uranium, after cooling to a manageable temperature over a period of about 40 years, will be buried 450 metres below ground in a vast tunnel complex. The granite bedrock will be stable enough to store it for millennia without shifting, the project’s scientists believe.

The 5,000m winding tunnel leading to the storage facility feels curiously airy and not claustrophobic, despite the fact that it leads hundreds of metres below ground. The tunnels hum with the sounds of excavation. Planned to be operational by 2025, the storage facility will be capable of storing enough waste to power the plant for about a century, I was told by Pasi Tuohimaa, the communications director for the nuclear disposal operator Posiva. It turns out that nobody has really solved the problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel. In Olkiluoto, the Finns say their method will be emulated by other countries.

Helsinki is a quiet city at the best of times, but the calm streets bely the biggest shift in Finland’s security policy in nearly eight decades. Along with neighbouring Sweden, the country is on the cusp of joining Nato. The formal neutrality imposed on it by the Soviet Union in 1944 after the loss of the Continuation War will come to an end once all members of the alliance approve its accession. (Just Hungary and Turkey have not yet done so.)

Once Sweden and, especially, Finland become part of Nato, the strategic map of Europe will change. There will be huge implications for the alliance’s posture with Russia. The length of Nato’s border with the latter will more than double, stretching an additional 1,300 kilometres into the Arctic.

Minna Ålander, of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told me over Neapolitan pizza in a fashionable district of Helsinki that Finland and Sweden joining Nato could completely change the balance of power in the Baltic Sea, one of Europe’s most sensitive regions. As she and co-author William Alberque of the International Institute for Strategic Studies argue in a forthcoming paper, Moscow will soon be forced to reckon with the defence of its extensive new border with the alliance. Troops will need to be moved from their normal stationing in Russia to the border with Finland. St Petersburg, Russia’s second-most important city, will be caught between the Nato members Estonia and Finland, and therefore be more vulnerable to a land attack from two directions and a Baltic naval blockade. Combined with an extensive border with Ukraine, whose army is now the most combat-experienced in Europe, Russia’s attention will be drawn away from the Baltic states, historically seen as the area where Moscow would most likely to test the alliance’s resolve with an attack.

Finns are not a people given to hyperbole. Officials in Helsinki working on Nato integration talk dryly of the interoperability and close cooperation of their country’s military with the alliance’s, of Finland’s strengths as a mass army and experience in Arctic warfare. But the forthcoming accession of Finland to Nato is one of the biggest changes to European security for more than a decade – all catalysed by Vladimir Putin’s catastrophic decision to invade Ukraine.

On my last night, I checked in to what must be Europe’s worst-smelling hostel, a half-hour tram ride inland. Here is a different side to the country from the seafront saunas and reindeer-based spreads. At least half of the guests were Russian men who fled Putin’s mobilisation at home, many on their own. Thirty-six-year-old Vasily is a lawyer from St Petersburg. He served in the army as a border guard so is eligible for the draft. He was waiting in Helsinki for his wife to sell their car before they move to Florida. He has never been to the US. “Have you been?” he asked me, the anxiety evident in his voice. “What’s it like?”

The number of Russians in the hostel had been falling, Vasily told me, as they moved on from Finland to other countries in Europe, Israel, Central Asia – more or less wherever they could get to. Finland had closed its borders to most Russian citizens a few days prior, ostensibly on security grounds. But the men idling in the windowless common room didn’t look like a fifth column to me. They looked like people scared to be sent to prosecute a senseless war, equally disorientated at having to leave a country that had changed beyond recognition in just a few months – and above all, relieved at having made it out.

[See also: Will Putin go nuclear?]

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