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Any decision to go down nuclear energy route in Estonia binding for a century

Artist's rendition of what a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) in Estonia might look like if built.
Artist's rendition of what a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) in Estonia might look like if built. Source: ERR

Should Estonia opt to construct a nuclear power plant to meet its energy needs, this would be a decision which would last for around a century – meaning all aspects must be thoroughly weighed up beforehand, the head of the national nuclear energy working party says.

Reelika Runnel, coordinator of the working group (Tuumaenergia töörühm) made her remarks ahead of a conference Monday which will debate nuclear power and will feature several politicians.

Runnel said that: "The preparation and adoption of the draft nuclear bill, the creation of a nuclear regulator – an institution which oversees nuclear energy and issues safety assessments and permits – plus the matter of [nuclear power station] location selection, which also entails deciding what kind of technology we will be using."

Areas where a future nuclear power plant could be built in Estonia. Source: ERR

Several potential sites for a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) in Estonia have been identified (see map above).

"On a positive note, nuclear energy is sure to help us meet our 2050 climate obligations, on account of its being a low-carbon energy source," Runnel went on.

"Nuclear energy will also contribute to security of supply: It is available at any time, in any weather conditions," she added.

"As for the negative side: In order to make use of nuclear energy, the state has separately to maintain the corresponding national grid, and this will impact upon the state budget. Second, with the introduction of nuclear energy, the state would to all intents and purposes lock itself for the following century, since a nuclear plant has a very long life-span, so once this decision is made, it is not easy to give up on this type of energy overnight," she continued.

In the event of the Estonian state opting not to use nuclear power, the working group's report will remain a "seed," one which has provided the state with some knowledge of various aspects of nuclear power, it is argued.

If the state takes nuclear energy as being necessary, it could take around a decade to complete a nuclear power plant, though much also depends on how quickly small reactors suitable for Estonia are rolled out worldwide.

The working party has been active for two-and-a-half years now; the final decision on its outcome as outlined above is down to the executive and legislature

Reelika Runnel reiterated the importance of not making that decision lightly, and to ensure safety when using nuclear energy.

"Countries cannot be prohibited from utilizing nuclear energy if they want to, on the condition that all will comply with international requirements and, above all, safety is guaranteed."

Runnel pointed out that: "Internationally, nuclear energy is highly regulated and standardized," adding that representatives of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited Estonia last month, among other reasons to assess whether all the nuclear energy aspects relating to deployment have been grasped.

The IAEA gave the go ahead for Estonia's nuclear energy program, should that decision be made.

Runnel pointed out some positive and negative circumstances that should be taken into account when making a decision.

The nuclear energy working party is expected to submit its final report to the government in a few weeks' time, while a conference in Tallinn today, Monday, will discuss the preparation of the final report and the experience of other countries.

A debate involving politicians and entitled "Should Estonia open the door to nuclear energy" is also taking place from 10 a.m.

Reelika Runnel also pledged that the final report will be just the right length so that the politicians responsible for making the decision can read it in a "reasonable amount of time," while more thorough analysis (totaling over a thousand pages) is available for those more interested in a deep dive, she said.

The state has selected over a dozen potential nuclear power station sites (see map above), while private sector firm Fermi Energia, who would be tasked with erecting the SMR should it go ahead, have earmarked two sites, in northeastern Estonia, at Toila, Ida-Viru County and Kunda, Lääne-Viru County.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: ERR Radio News, reporter Kai Vare.

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