FINNISH LEADER COOL ON N-POWER Peter Wilson, Helsinki February 12, 2007
NUCLEAR energy proponents around the world are looking to Finland as a role model for the industry in the 21st century, but the country's President arrives in Australia this week with a surprising degree of scepticism about nuclear power.
President Tarja Halonen, who begins a four-day official visit tomorrow, told The Australian before her departure from Helsinki that nuclear power was only "a short-term medicine" rather than a permanent solution to climate change.
The Howard Government has swung strongly behind nuclear power as a way of reducing carbon emissions after a positive report from an advisory task force, which last year examined a new-technology plant being built in Finland.
The plant was the first to be commissioned in western Europe since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and will lift the nuclear component of Finland's electricity supply to more than 30 per cent.
Ms Halonen, a Left-leaning former foreign minister, warned that nuclear power could distract attention and investment away from renewable sources of energy and ways of cutting power use.
"That's why I'm afraid it's just an aspirin, a short-term medicine," she said.
"If you have a headache you take a pill, but you should also be interested in why you have a headache in the first place.
"Everyone can now see very clearly that climate change is a fact (and nuclear power could help to reduce it), but the difficulty of nuclear power is it has these negative side effects.
"One is that it needs a very safe society, which is not available everywhere. The second is that scientists have not solved the problem of nuclear waste. In a way it's a bill that is partly paid by the coming generations.
"The third one is the very clear ties between the civil and military sides of nuclear technology."
Ziggy Switkowski, the head of the Howard Government's nuclear task force, concluded last year that Australia could have a commercial nuclear plant operating in 10 to 15 years.
But Finland has devoted many years to public consultations and its new plant has been hit by lengthy construction delays, like all four of its predecessors.
"Because it is an issue that is not only an energy issue but has also these side effects, in a democratic system we should have a response from the people and in Finland that is the parliament," Ms Halonen said.
"And in every single political party we have divisions on this issue.
"So, in that way, there is not some kind of switch you can click and you have a nuclear power plant and you just turn it on and off."
Ms Halonen, who was elected President in 2000, had earlier voted in parliament against the new plant, and she opposes a licence for a sixth plant, which Finnish power companies are expected to seek this year.
A firm supporter of the Kyoto agreement on limiting emissions -- which Australia and the US refuse to sign -- Ms Halonen said she hoped all countries would sign up to a new agreement to control emissions. "I will be very interested to listen in Australia why they have not become a member of Kyoto and what they would like to see after Kyoto," she said.
The Finnish President is leading a delegation of science and innovation experts and will spend much of her time discussing her country's experience in leaping from a struggling, resources-dependent economy to become one of the most competitive hi-tech economies, symbolised by the success of its mobile telephone maker Nokia.
One big difference between the two governments is Finland's reluctance to align itself closely with the Bush administration.
When Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was in Finland last year he pointedly observed that "some European countries" could contribute more to the US-led operations in Afghanistan.
"We are doing enough (in Afghanistan)," said Ms Halonen, whose country has a small contingent of troops in the north of that country.
"We are very much interested that the new Afghanistan will get a good start and we are helping, but enough is enough."