By Terhi Kinnunen
HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland's nuclear safety chief cast doubt on Thursday on plans to start systems tests this autumn at the Olkiluoto 3 reactor, one of only a handful being built in the EU, suggesting the much-delayed project may be pushed back further.
French nuclear group Areva still has plenty of work to do before it can begin "automation" tests of systems that will operate and monitor the plant, Petteri Tiippana, director general of Finland's radiation and nuclear safety authority STUK, told Reuters in an interview.
Olkiluoto 3, which Areva and Siemens are building for Finnish utility Teollisuuden Voima (TVO), has suffered delays and soaring costs at a time when the disaster at Japan's Fukushima plant has cast doubt over nuclear energy in much of Europe.
Areva's chief operating officer Philippe Knoche told Reuters in May that it planned to begin automation systems tests right after the summer.
Tiippana, who is responsible for ensuring safety at the plant rather than sticking to any construction timetable, declined to say when he thought Areva could start the tests.
However, he said: "There is plenty of work to be done." Asked what the project's biggest problem was, he said: "The design, engineering of the plant systems and structures took more time than expected in the beginning."
Tiippana said there were three steps involved in planning and testing the reactor's automation system, and Areva was still at the initial stage of designing the architecture. "We are still on the step one," he said.
TVO spokeswoman Anna Lehtiranta confirmed there were problems. "Automation is the critical issue that is delaying all the other things," she said. "There are shortcomings and open issues with the detailed planning. It is Areva's job to finish these things so the automation can be taken forward."
Areva and TVO have traded accusations about who is to blame for the delays, and the International Chamber of Commerce's arbitration court is processing a dispute on the cost overruns between the consortium and TVO.
TVO originally estimated the reactor project would cost 3.5 billion euros ($4.62 billion). Areva has so far booked 3.3 billion euros of provisions on the project.
In February TVO said commercial power production was likely to start in 2016, around seven years behind an original schedule, due to delays in planning the automation systems. The reactor itself also has to be tested before the plant can start producing power.
ROLLING UP THE SLEEVES
Last week Areva's CEO Luc Oursel said the plant was 85 percent complete, adding that the Finnish client needed "to roll up his sleeves" and prepare to take charge of the plant.
Building of Olkiluoto 3, Finland's fifth reactor, started in 2005 and the first delays were announced early the following year due to problems in component production. The project has also suffered a series of relatively minor problems including poor concrete quality and the need to redo some welding.
Only three other reactors are under construction in the European Union. In France, Flamanville on the Normandy coast has also been hit by delays while two Russian-designed reactors are being built in Slovakia in a project dating back to the 1980s.
While Olkiluoto 3's problems are technical, the Fukushima disaster has led to soul-searching in Europe. Germany decided to move away from nuclear energy immediately after a tsunami and earthquake wrecked the Japanese station in 2011, and engineers there are still trying to stop leaks of radioactive water.
Speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Paris, Oursel said the start-up tests would be key to TVO progressively taking over Olkiluoto 3. "This is a change as the client was up to now an observer and a controller. Now the client needs to roll his sleeves up and prepare to take charge of the tool."
Since Fukushima, European regulators have carried out stress tests on nuclear plants across the continent and regulations for new reactors have been changed to incorporate lessons learned from the disaster, causing delays for some projects.
Countries such as Britain, the Czech Republic and Romania have programs to build new reactors, although rising costs and squabbles over public subsidies for nuclear energy have cast doubt on these plans.
Earlier this month Tiippana replaced Tero Varjoranta, who has become the chief nuclear inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). ($1 = 0.7577 euros)
(Additional reporting by Karolin Schaps in London and Muriel Boselli in Paris; editing by David Stamp)