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Professor: Russian energy dependence risky

The EU intends to decrease its dependence on importing energy, particularly from Russia. But Finland's projected increasing reliance on Russian gas and uranium has prompted some to say the situation could become risky if relations deteriorate with the country's superpower neighbour.

Havainnekuva Rosatomin suunnittelemasta ydinvoimalasta Pyhäjoelle.
Designer's rendering of the planned Pyhäjoki nuclear power plant, which is scheduled to begin construction in 2018. Image: Fennovoima

One EU country, the former Soviet state of Lithuania, has made great strides in shedding its dependence on Russian energy.

"History has taught us that there is nothing good to be dependent on Russia, economically or politically," Lithuania's Minister of Energy Rokas Masiulis said. "Russia uses energy as a political tool."

Finland relies on Russia for 50 percent of its energy needs and when the new nuclear power facility in Pyhäjoki is complete, the need for more Russian-sourced uranium will only increase.

Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen, professor of export and energy policy at the University of Helsinki says that Finland has tightly bound itself to Russian energy over the past several decades. He said those policies are integral components of the goodwill between the two countries.

In other words, Finland has had a different relationship with Russia than its neighbour across the Baltic Sea, Lithuania.

Lithuania sold gas company to Gazprom

For a very long time now, Lithuania has been dependent on natural gas imported from Russia. Promises of low gas prices prompted Lithuania to sell off its national gas company to the Russian gas provider giant Gazprom.

However shortly thereafter gas prices went through the roof and Russian gas became the most expensive on global markets.

"That was a wakeup call," energy minister Masiulis said. "We realised that kind words don't necessarily equate to good business dealings."

It was in 2012 that Lithuania announced its energy independence strategy. The country built a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal in the harbour city of Klaipeda, and began to import LNG from other countries.

Currently Norway is a major LNG provider for Lithuania, and prices have come down.

Finland reliant on Russian uranium

Concerning nuclear power, Finland's dependence on Russian uranium is expected to increase when construction of the Fennovoima nuclear power plant begins in Pyhäjoki in a couple of years.

Fennovoima has signed a deal with the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom's TVEL Fuel Company to supply the uranium during the first ten years of the Pyhäjoki power plant's operations.

Now the EU says member states should be able to replace the use of Russian uranium sourced from other countries.

The US-based nuclear power company Westinghouse Electric Company said its experiences with the TVEL Fuel Company weren't very good. Michael Krist, Westinghouse's VP of strategy and external relations in Europe, Middle East and Africa said that it was difficult to get all necessary data from TVEL.

"It can be very difficult and [TVEL] is constantly updating their [gas] designs so that their chemical components occasionally change," he said.

According to Fennovoima, there isn't a problem. According to Minttu Hietamäki, Fennovoima's nuclear power technology expert said that TVEL has provided all the required information and has provided guarantees about the fuel mix to be delivered.

"Naturally," Hietamäki said. "Our requirements are stated in the contract before fuel is delivered."

Could be risky if situation changes

As Fennoivoima's nuclear plans continue to grow, so too does Finland's relationship with Russia.

On a couple of occasions Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken of Fennovoima as an example of a healthy economic relationship with Finland.

However, given that gas pipelines were shut down in the Ukraine and gas prices went sky high in Lithuania, how long can the good relationship last in these uncertain times?

"If the world situation changes and if Finland's position changes there are no guarantees that there wouldn't be some heavy-handed tactics applied," professor Tynkkynen said. "If our dependence on Russian energy is still 50 percent, then it is clear that it would be a big risk for us."

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