The risk that Russia could leave the power plants in Narva without vital cooling water has spurred Estonia's public authorities into action. The state is cutting through the bureaucratic rigmarole with an expedited procedure that could allow it to break ground quickly on an alternative cooling canal.
The fact that the operation of the power plants in Narva is dependent on Russia's whims was discussed in the 1990s already. All it would take is for Russia to open the locks of the Narva Dam and allow for water levels in the reservoir to drop by a couple of meters and Narva's power plants, particularly Balti Power Plant, would be left without vital cooling water.
Repeated for decades, these risks are a touchy subject for the parties involved. Both Estonian state-owned energy group Eesti Energia and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications declined to provide interviews on the matter. Eesti Energia spokesperson Priit Luts confirmed in writing that the company is ensuring the functioning of vital services.
"Eesti Energia has risk plans for vital services that we update regularly, and we have done so following the events of February 24 as well," Luts said, referring to the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. "In addition, we are also exchanging information with security authorities."
The terse response doesn't even hint at the fact that Eesti Energia, state officials and politicians have all been thinking for months about how to free the Estonian power plants from their dependence on Narva Reservoir. A potential solution has even been sketched out already.
Various sources indicate that a new canal must be dug. Pumps and dams could ensure that the Narva power plants would have sufficient cooling water in any case. Several questions remain — both technical and financial — but Estonia is pressed for time as well.
"A preliminary assessment also exists for the security risk involving our electricity supply in which the situation may change overnight at our eastern neighbor's will," noted Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab (Center). "We must be prepared so that our plants cannot be stopped at someone else's will."
By the time fish are flopping around on a dry reservoir bed and the power plants helplessly offline, however, it'll be too late already to only just start breaking ground.
"We'd like to get this solution done as quickly as possible," Aab said, adding that Estonia cannot sit and wait for possible wrongdoing on Russia's part. "We need to have this other option available."
Flying through red tape
Aab confirmed that it was worry over the Narva power plants that spurred the ministries to seek legislative amendments from lawmakers that are scheduled for their second reading in the Riigikogu already on Thursday.
Proposed amendments to the Building Code, Planning Act and several other laws are being tacked onto a bill of amendments to the Aviation Act, thus paving the way for the state to cut through red tape that could otherwise hold up the crucial project.
This is a significant change in Estonian law. Several typical stages can be bypassed altogether or expedited, including significant time savings at the expense of public involvement.
"The main reason is the currently prevailing security situation," the public administration minister explained. "And in this case, energy security more specifically, which has a very serious impact on security as a whole."
The official author of the draft amendments is the Ministry of Defense. Undersecretary for Defense Planning Tiina Uudeberg noted that structures necessary for security authorities can already be built under faster procedures than usual. Qualifying exceptions would now simply expand to include other fields.
"The conditions are such that the objective of a structure must be strictly security- or emergency preparedness-related," Uudeberg said. In other words, the building of a structure must either help prevent a crisis or help resolve one. "There cannot be alternative locations or solutions," she said, noting the conditions. "It must be very urgent. And the government decides on a case-by-case basis anyway. There won't be anything automatic here."
Matter of months still, not weeks
In theory, the planned process should work like this: first, a ministry discovers a missing structure that, if not built quickly, could have a major impact on Estonian security. It then writes about its discovery to an authority that can provide a risk assessment, such as the Ministry of Defense or the Government Office. Should the latter confirm that this structure is absolutely vital, it is then presented to the government.
Should the government give the green light, it will then be turned over for handling by the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA). This will help bypass lengthy public debates, several time-consuming rounds of approval as well as the risk that a local government may not issue a building permit for the structure. In lieu of a special use of water permit, a registration of water use will suffice. Generally speaking, water protection zones do not have to be taken into consideration either.
There is one aspect that cannot be bypassed even with this new process, however — the conservation objectives for the Natura 2000 network. Should a preliminary assessment indicate that the planned structure may negatively impact these objectives, a lengthy environmental impact assessment must be initiated.
Uudeberg nonetheless noted that even in the fastest-case scenario, they wouldn't be breaking ground in a matter of mere weeks anyway; the new rules would only allow for a modest speeding up of the process. Of course, much of the process would also depend on the exact structure in question.
"But we're definitely talking about months here, not years," she continued. "This also involves its own oversight, this also involves its own authorization procedure. All of these stages are still completed in one form or another. Just a little more quickly, and not always involving all parties throughout the entire process."
Editor: Aili Vahtla