Expert: Lithuanian plant would be Estonia's fastest route to nuclear energy

Professor Alar Konist.
Professor Alar Konist. Source: TalTech

One advantage of the GE Hitachi modular reactor selected by Fermi Energia, is its passive safety system, which, in the event of a malfunction, would ensure the nuclear plant remains safe, says energy professor Alar Konist. However, introducing nuclear power to Estonia would still require a long period of preparatory work, he said.

"Fermi Energia chose GE Hitachi's BWRX-300 modular reactor because it is the first technology (of its kind) to be in the process of being licensed in the U.S. and Canada and has also been sent for evaluation in the U.K., Poland and Sweden. It is the (type of) small modular reactor, which is most widely used and is expected to be licensed for commercial operation by the end of the 2020s," Alar Konist, professor of energy technology at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), told ERR.

"With anything new, there can be risks. However, we should look at the fact that the U.S. and Canada are nuclear countries and if they have gone through (their) safety procedures and found that it could be tested, then that is a welcome step," Konist said.

"If [Fermi Energia's] wishes come true, then this plant will be great - with a modular reactor there is less land use, and if something happens, it can make itself safe. With large nuclear plants, if there is a power failure, then the cooling system is lost and so there is a risk of a nuclear accident. Of course, there is still the question of whether they will work as efficiently in real life," said Konist.

Konist is skeptical about Fermi Energia's proposed timetable for the project to be completed, as the development of nuclear power plants has usually taken longer than expected. Fermi Energia promises to have the plant up and running as soon as 2031.

"I don't think there will be a quick fix here. If we say that we need energy now, or even in five years' time, then we cannot look at nuclear as a viable solution," Konist said.

Estonia also has a lot of background work to do. "Estonia is not a nuclear country, we don't have international agreements. We also need nuclear fuel and agreements on the disposal of nuclear waste," Konist said. These different requirements would make Estonia dependent on other countries. "We have to look at how much independence we want when it comes to energy production, because if we take solar, wind, geothermal, shale or biofuels for example, we can decide how and when we use them, independently of other countries," Konist said.

According to Konist, Estonia also lacks sufficient specialists to complete the transition to nuclear energy. "There is no point in making promises if we do not have international agreements in place, enough specialists, or a proper supervisory body in the country. There is also space for nuclear reactors elsewhere in the Baltic states. We could look at (the possibility of) building a nuclear power plant together with our neighboring countries. The quickest way (to do this) would be in Lithuania. Although the Ignalina plant was shut down, Lithuania has the (required) staff and international agreements. Setting up (a plant) in Estonia is not impossible, but it will certainly take longer than in it would in Lithuania," Konist said.

He also pointed out, that there is still no consensus in Estonian society regarding whether the plant is wanted in the country all, as polls on the issue have not yet been taken. "Discussions also arose in Estonia when they wanted to build an oil shale oil plant here, however, a nuclear power plant is something much bigger," Konist said.

It is not clear whether the introduction of nuclear power in Estonia would drive down energy prices in the country. "When fuel prices went up, so did (the cost of) natural gas, oil, coal, wood and also nuclear. All prices are correlated, and the cost of nuclear fuel depends on the world market price. As with all other imported fuels, nuclear fuel needs to be assessed prudently particularly considering. how much uranium comes from a single country, with 40 percent produced by Kazakhstan. We have to see how easy it will be to obtain it in the future," said Konist.

Konist also said, that if everyone in Europe now wants to have nuclear power plants, it should be expected that the price of nuclear fuel would start to go up. "It's not worth hoping that nuclear will be the golden ticket that brings all prices down, but it will certainly provide some relief," said Konist.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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