The managers of the Finnish power company TVO made one last request before ordering Olkiluoto 3, the biggest atomic power plant in the world, from Siemens and the Areva nuclear group: please paint it oxblood red and white – that’s how the quaint summer houses look on the west coast of Finland.

The two companies did manage that, at least: at the moment, workers are busy applying a colourful coat of paint to the turbine hall. But otherwise not much is going according to plan at Europe’s biggest atomic building site. The customers and manufacturing companies are at loggerheads, fighting over billions in a court of arbitration. The costs are exploding (from 3 billion to 5.8), completion has been pushed back several years (from spring 2009 to 2012). But above all, critics reprove the syndicate for dangerously cutting corners. The concrete is porous, the steel cracked, and some of the construction principles are so audacious that experts from the Finnish atomic energy agency shudder at the very thought.

Flagship project or flagship disaster

TVO and Areva are still making an effort to keep up appearances. TVO project manager Jouni Silvennoinen reels off a litany of superlatives: Here in Olkiluoto the first third-generation nuclear power plant is being built, the European Pressurized Reactor, or EPR for short. The world’s highest-capacity reactor could supply enough energy for a whole megacity. EPR is the most modern atomic machine in the world, a hybrid German and French development. But hybrids are complicated creatures: over 3,000 mistakes have been made in the construction to date.

Of the hundreds of subcontractors involved, precious few have any experience in reactor technology. Workers at one firm, for instance, who were supposed to put the pipe for a sensor in a designated spot, summarily decided the spot was too hard to get at and installed the pipe elsewhere. But the sensor has to take measurements where the designers intended. Not only that: there are notices in four languages hanging at the site saying: “Please do not relieve yourself inside the building.” “This is no flagship project, it’s a flagship disaster,” claims Mycle Schneider in Paris, a German nuclear policy consultant and winner of a Right Livelihood Award, aka the “Alternative Nobel Prize”.

36 new nuclear power stations for China

But the French state-owned energy group is not the only one having a hard time building new nuclear power stations. Last year, for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, not a single reactor in the world came on line. According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009, 52 reactors are currently “under construction” – 13 of them, however, for over 20 years now. And when 24 of them could eventually be commissioned is not even theoretically clear. What is more, 36 of the new reactors are to be built not in the safety-conscious West, but in China, India, Russia and South Korea. “Everything goes black when I consider that 16 nuclear plants are being built simultaneously in China, and all we hear is there are no problems there,” says nuclear critic Schneider.

Atomic energy is cheap only if old reactors remain on line for a long time and without any hitches – and if the state takes care of the unresolved question of permanent nuclear waste disposal. But is it really that simple to keep them running longer? In the past, the operational life span of a nuclear power plant was considered in the industry to be 40 years. “We have zero experience of power reactors that run for more than 40 years,” says nuclear expert Schneider. Yet RWE CEO Jürgen Großmann says German reactors would even hold out for 60. Similar thinking is prevalent in the US, Sweden and France.

Lack of new recruits

And yet can the atomic industry be trusted to modernise old facilities if building a new one involves so many slip-ups as in Finland? No new reactors have been built in the Western world in over a decade. Atomic overseers regard the lack of know-how as one cause of the string of snags. And the problem is going to get worse.

40 per cent of the personnel at US nuclear plants are due to retire soon. So the industry will have to hire 26,000 new recruits over the next decade – even if it doesn’t build a single new reactor. But in the year 2008, US universities turned out only 841 graduates. The situation in Germany is even more alarming. Areva project manager Jean-Pierre Mouroux holds fast to its faith in a reactor renaissance in spite of all. “We’re going to build this reactor all over the world,” says Mouroux. And so what if the machine costs a little more and the construction takes a little longer? “After all, the EPR is due to keep running for 60 years.”