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The Woman Who Is Building a Nuclear Power Plant

Karel Beckman's picture
energy journalist, Karel Beckman

former editor-in-chief Energy Post, European Energy Review, World Energy Focus and The Energy Collective, now freelance

  • Member since 2018
  • 54 items added with 95,853 views
  • Jun 9, 2017

Minna Forsström

Minna Forsström is responsible for a unique project: the first Russian-made nuclear power plant to be built in the E.U. outside of the former Soviet Union.

In a personal interview with Energy Post, she reveals how her company, Fennovoima, has coped with extremely demanding regulatory challenges. (“you can’t expect to submit a project and have it approved all in one go”), why they chose to work with Rosatom (“they have huge engineering capacity and were the most flexible”), and what she has learned from visiting other new nuclear projects throughout the world (“the Chinese are very well organised, like an army”). The fact that she is a woman does not matter at all in the male-dominated nuclear world. “The men treat me very well.” What drives her most of all is that she is building something “bigger than our own lives”.

The biggest challenge of the Hanhiviki project – the 1200 MW Russian nuclear reactor that will be built on the Bay of Bothnia in Northern Finland – is its sheer magnitude, says Project Director Minna  Forsström in her office in Helsinki. “To prepare all the documentation, recruit people, deal with financing, communications, politics, local stakeholders – it’s a complex balancing act.”

Forsström, a chemical engineer by education, does not have a nuclear background. Before she became involved in Hanhikivi, she worked in industrial projects for 25 years, initially through the well-known consultancy Pöyry. Later she ran a coffee factory for the Finnish Paulig Group in Russia, which delivers coffee to all McDonald’s outlets in that country. “So I know a bit about how to work with the Russians.”

“We import electricity from Russia already. And gas and oil too. If anything, Hanhikivi will make us less dependent”

In 2012 she was asked by Fennovoima – a utility company set up in 2007 by a consortium of Finnish companies and municipalities – to “run a health check” of Hanhikivi. “The project was going through a lot of changes at the time. Eon, the big German utility, left because they had decided to pull out of Finland. And the shareholders decided they wanted to scale down the size of project – from 1600 MW to 1200 MW. I became the leading negotiator with the potential suppliers and then ended up being Project Director.”

Fennovoima visits Brussels 

At the end of June, Fennovoima will be hosting an informal reception in Brussels to celebrate its 10th anniversary and share the Hanhikivi story. 

Minna Forsström realizes that nuclear power is a contentious issue in the EU, but she is convinced it has an important role to play in fighting climate change. “We have seen bad examples of countries stopping nuclear power and having had to increase their use of coal. That is shooting in your own foot.” 

It’s difficult for an engineer to understand where the opposition to nuclear comes from, she says. “Climate change is a huge problem. We have to tackle that. Can we really afford to ignore a tried and tested solution?” 

What is more, Fennovoima is proving that new nuclear power can be delivered cost-competitively, without subsidies. “Hinkley Point C, with its strike price of £97.50/MWh, has created the impression that new nuclear power is expensive, but we guarantee our shareholders, who are also our clients, a price of €50/MWh.”

When Forsström was asked to carry out the negotiations with suppliers, the choice for Rosatom had not been made yet. Areva, which has been building the troubled Olkiluoto-3 plant in Finland, and Toshiba, whose nuclear subsidiary Westinghouse has recently filed for bankruptcy, were still in the picture. One reason Fennovoima chose Rosatom, says Forsström, is that the Russians had a superior offer when it came to a mid-sized, 1200 MW reactor. “Rosatom has a huge engineering capacity. A great track record with their VVER reactors. And strong motivation.”

Rosatom was also able to offer favourable financing conditions. They took a minority interest in the company (34%;  based on the political approval of the project, they are not allowed to acquire more than 40%) and provide three-quarters of the financing up front. What is more, they have agreed that the maximum price for the electricity Fennovoima will deliver to its shareholders in the first years will be €50 per MWh. Should the costs of the project get out of hand, the Russians will have to pay. “The package is very lucrative for the Finnish owners”, says Forsström.

Bit by bit

But there is no indication that costs will get out of hand. In fact, Hanhiviki is proceeding according to plan  – unlike its rival Olkiluoto-3, commissioned by utility TVO, which is almost a decade behind schedule and faced with cost overruns of at least €5 billion. How did Fennovoima manage to do this?

Forsström: “We review all documentation bit by bit before we supply it to the regulator, STUK. We have a team of Russian engineers from the plant supplier’s side working right across the yard from this building, who are able to make changes as required. It’s not as if you can do it all in one go.”

This doesn’t mean it has been easy going for Fennovoima. “The regulatory process is extremely demanding. It involves a huge amount of documentation. But the Finnish authorities are quite practical. They will give guidance when we ask for it.”

Who is Minna Forsström? 

Minna Forsström (50), Project Director at Fennovoima, has a M.Sc. and an MBA. Prior to Fennovoima she worked at Voimaosakeyhtiö SF (Fennovoima’s owner). Forsström has a long experience in industrial investment projects, including positions at Pöyry and at Gustav Paulig.

There have been other challenges too. The Russian involvement has been controversial, Forsström acknowledges. “The Finnish have a long troubled history with the Russians.” Some people are worried that Finland will become too dependent on Russia. “But we import electricity from Russia already. And gas and oil too. If anything, Hanhikivi will make us less dependent.”

Fennovoima has a ten-year supply contract for the uranium with Rosatom, but it will have a reserve supply for emergencies, and it is always possible to obtain alternative supplies, says Forsström.

Some confusion

Nuclear power as such is also not without its critics in Finland. Nevertheless, the Finnish government has made a political decision to develop the country’s nuclear capacity. This is backed by a clear majority in the Parliament. “We need reliable low-carbon energy sources and we want to rely less on imports. Since we have limited renewable energy resources, the only option for us is domestic nuclear power.”

Last year, regulator STUK voiced criticisms of the company’s safety culture, but according to Forsström that was a temporary problem. “We were in a very strong growth phase, recruiting a lot of new people. This created some confusion, but all these problems have been addressed.”

“Most engineers know that we need different sources of low-carbon energy in the future. We are not against wind or solar, but we know we will need large-scale sources such as nuclear too”

If Fennovoima manages to satisfy STUK’s requirements, then the Ministry of Economic Affairs will award a construction licence to Hanhiviki, probably at the end of 2018. There are no more political hurdles to clear, says Forsström. “The project has been approved twice in the Parliament and this decision cannot be revoked anymore. We are already building everything that is not directly related to the nuclear reactor itself. We aim to start construction of the reactor at the end of 2018.”

At this moment, Fennovoima is rapidly building up its staff. “We are constantly recruiting people. We have 300 people in the team now, from 18 countries. At the peak we will have 500. Later it will go down to 450, though some of them will be different people.”

Forsström says she goes to work every morning curious about “what inventions the guys have come up with”. “It’s great to work with such an international team. It gives us a range of experience that is much greater than we could have had from Finland alone.”

Hanhiviki construction site in May 2017 (photo Fennovoima)

Change the planet

At this moment there are a lot of Czechs working for Fennovoima. They were looking for work when a nuclear project in their own country was cancelled.

It is hard to find good electrical engineers, says Forsström. Configuration management experts are also in short supply. Configuration management is an industrial process developed by the airplane and space industry, in which processes are first separately developed, then aligned into a “baseline”, developed again and aligned into the next baseline, and so on. “You need to understand the whole project and freeze it at certain points”, Forsström explains.

“There is a lot of sharing in the nuclear family. I won’t say it’s always a happy family, but we have a lot of common headaches”

People need not be specialized in nuclear power to work on the project, says Forsström. They do need to believe in the future of nuclear power of course or they would not come. But that is not a problem, according to Forsström. “Most engineers know that we need different sources of low-carbon energy in the future. We are not against wind or solar, but we know we will need large-scale sources such as nuclear too. You cannot change the planet overnight.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of her job is that she visits nuclear projects throughout the world: in Russia, China, Hungary, Belarus, Armenia. “There is a lot of sharing in the nuclear family. I won’t say it’s always a happy family, but we have a lot of common headaches and are eager to share experiences.”

For example, Forsström and her team meet with people from the PAKS nuclear project in Hungary regularly. PAKS has just been given the green light by the European Commission for its contract with Rosatom to build two new 1200 MW VVER-reactors, the same ones as in Finland, in addition to the four old PAKS reactors which currently supply half of Hungary’s electricity. “The Hungarians copied a lot of our arrangements with the Russians, but they also gave us a lot of information about the reactors.”

Air pollution

Fennovoima is also paying close attention to what is going on at the Leningrad II nuclear plant site in Russia, where Rosatom is currently building a VVER-1200 reactor. “All our engineers are obliged to visit that plant at least once. We send 10 of our staff out there every week.” 

Forsström herself is just back from a trip to China (she is still coughing from the air pollution in Beijing) where she visited two of Rosatom’s projects. Would they be approved by STUK if the Finnish regulator were in charge there? “They are really doing quite well”, says Forsström. “The Chinese are very well organised. Like an army almost. And very much focused on safety.”

“We are bringing wealth, jobs, business opportunities and a new source of energy security to Finland. We are also contributing to fighting climate change”

According to Forsström the Chinese are in fact making impressive progress in the nuclear field. “They do not let the Russians build the reactors. They bought the technology and some of the components, but then they do the building themselves. They have even developed their own reactors, which very few countries are able to do. They want to sell those now to the UK.”

At the same time, foreign companies are also very interested in what is going on in Finland, says Forsström. “Fennovoima is a newcomer. We don’t carry any of the baggage of an old utility. We were able to develop this project from a clean sheet. People are quite interested in how the combination of mankala – the Finnish business model in which the energy users jointly own the power plants – and Rosatom works.”

At the Hanhikivi site in March 2017 (photo Fennovoima)

Life is short

Would Fennovoima consider taking up other projects after Hanhikivi is finished? Forsström does not rule it out, but says it is too soon to think about it now.

What keeps her going in the job? “What drives me most is learning new things and accomplishing something real. We are bringing wealth, jobs, business opportunities and a new source of energy security to Finland. We are also contributing to fighting climate change.” But her most important motivation may be, as she puts it, that they are “building something that will last a hundred years. It’s bigger than our own lives.”

Would she take on the job again? She laughs. “My life is short.” One thing is certain: the fact that she is a woman who is building this nuclear power plant is not a handicap at all. “Men are sometimes surprised when they discover that a woman is in charge  of this project. But they treat me extremely nicely.”

Original Post

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 10, 2017

Karel, it’s encouraging other countries are picking up nuclear where the U.S., Japan, and South Korea left off. But the longer we hinder nuclear in the U.S., the more catching up we’ll have to do – even possibly becoming one of Rosatom’s biggest customers at some point in the future, out of necessity.

An all-out research and licensing imperative with GE’s PRISM fast-neutron reactor is our best shot in the near term. That’s assuming Trump’s ineptitude, narcissism, and pro-fossil agenda don’t take all nuclear investment and innovation out of play in the near term.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 10, 2017

…nuclear power is a contentious issue in the EU, but she is convinced it has an important role to play in fighting climate change. … It’s difficult for an engineer to understand where the opposition to nuclear comes from, she says. “Climate change is a huge problem.”

It’s remarkable how far the opinions of many in the general public are from that of most technical people. It’s pretty obvious which group has the better position from which to make an informed judgment.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Jun 10, 2017

Nice article and a great project. I hope we Swedes will listen and learn. Currently, we lack the political honesty necessary to build nuclear, but I hope that will change in the long term.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Jun 13, 2017

It looks like a very strange deal on the face of it. The explanation is that nuclear had to be saved from this tax with the Greens as part of the ruling coalition, so they had to get some long-term goals to save face. Very well played by the Vattenfall utility who applied the pressure to make it happen.

Karel Beckman's picture
Thank Karel for the Post!
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