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Züleyxa Izmailova: Questions on the nuclear plant

Züleyxa Izmailova.
Züleyxa Izmailova. Source: Kalev Lilleorg

The introduction of nuclear energy would be a historic decision for Estonia with far-reaching consequences – more important than the Enefit boilers, Rail Baltic, the pulp mill, the Saaremaa deep-sea port and the Koidula border crossing point combined, Züleyxa Izmailova (Eesti 200) writes. She highlights the importance of thorough risk analysis in the context of the full-scale war in Ukraine.

Over the last decade, the Estonian energy sector has not seen a major rise in electricity generation capacity. The problem has not been a shortage of technology or funding, but rather the size and inertia of bureaucratic cogs.

The only large energy production unit that was fast-tracked was the Auvere thermal power plant, which completed in 2015. A facility that has been more under maintenance than operating, particularly when electricity prices spike. Enefit's last boiler was another case in point: the building permit was rushed through, and the lack of due diligence led to the national energy company being sued by the youth organization, and successfully. A nominally legal scheme [in Estonian: JOKK] has been drawn up to allow construction to continue. Only time will tell how reliable this facility will be.

While Estonia is a world leader in squeezing energy out of shale, we now have to deal with a plan to build a nuclear power plant. An area in which we have absolutely no experience.

Against this backdrop, it is especially worrying that the Ministry of Climate's nuclear working group had no independent nuclear safety, security or technical specialists, either international or even national. The working group included former and current Estonian career officials. Where have we seen this before? In my opinion, this does not favor the objectivity, expertise and credibility of their final report (link in Estonian).

The debate over nuclear energy is undoubtedly necessary in Estonia, but the bad news is that the discussion has been heavily influenced by a private company's vigorous lobbying and PR efforts. Among the more recent examples was Andi Hector's appearance on ETV's "Terevisioon" [morning show], where the physicist and start-up entrepreneur argued that the disadvantage of wind turbines over nuclear power plants is that they require complicated systems. Nuclear energy is then the easier "thing to do."

It is a valid argument that, in addition to renewables, we also need steady and manageable power generation capacity and storage options that are less dependent on weather conditions, but the devil, as always, is in the details. Given our geographical location and knowledge base, a nuclear power plant with controlled power is only theoretically possible.

The introduction of nuclear energy and the construction of a nuclear power plant would be a decision of historic importance for Estonia, with far-reaching consequences. This infrastructure decision is more important than the Enefit boilers, Rail Baltic, the pulp mill, the Saaremaa deepwater port and the Koidula border crossing point combined. That is why the state has a duty to engage in a fair and thorough debate, to listen to both experts and the public, and to ensure a transparent decision-making process.

Against the backdrop of a full-scale war against Ukraine, our risk analysis and the debate must address these important questions:

1. How can the risk of possible Russian provocations and military activity to the facility and its security be mitigated?

Estonia's geographical proximity to Russia raises concerns about the plant's safety in our strategically critical region. Given Estonia's location and recent history, it is essential to understand how a nuclear power plant could make the country more vulnerable to possible Russian provocations and military assaults.

While we have only dealt with the softer side of hybrid warfare so far, the hacking of a nuclear power plant by an Eastern neighbor is not as insignificant as temporarily suspending bank transfers, disrupting a state portal, or even a public media broadcast.

The proximity to the Russian border and the 500-kilometer range of its eastern neighbor's Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles make addressing this issue critical. Building a nuclear power plant anywhere on Estonian territory carries risks. A nuclear power plant in Estonia could become the focus of a military conflict or a strategic target, as happened in Zaporizhzhia. Unfortunately, this is a real hostage crisis on a continental scale.

A comparison example from Ukraine: the Russians stole a solar park; they packed it and carried it away. This had no significant effects on the environment or people. The destruction of an entire renewable energy park by an enemy does not lead to a scenario similar to that after tempering with a nuclear facility.

While I was arguing about a potential wind energy threat in 2019, five years later, in light of nearly two years of hostility by a neighboring country, it is irrelevant. In the case of a nuclear catastrophe, Estonia would practically disappear. What would this mean threat signify in the context of our Constitution?  After all, the state was created to ensure the preservation of the Estonian nation, language and culture throughout generations.

2. What kind of nuclear power plant are we talking about? Where will the fuel come from, and what will happen with the radioactive waste?

According to news reports, a fourth generation of modular reactors should be built, and there has been talk of a molten salt reactor. Such solutions are not available on the market.

In Canada, one of these plants is being constructed on the site of an outdated nuclear power plant, which is essentially a transition to newer capabilities. However, regarding an appropriate time frame for evaluating the reliability and safety of this new technology, there is ongoing debate. Whether old or new technology is used depends on whether and how much fuel is needed for the plant and how much waste is generated from production. And what kind of waste?

Fuel is another problem. It is no secret that several EU countries have blocked sanctions against the Russian nuclear sector, because some nuclear power plants depend on uranium from Russia. Do we want to be one of those countries? How is that different from being dependent on Russia's fossil fuels?

The management and storage of nuclear waste is expensive and potentially very dangerous for the environment and people. Who is going to cover the costs, which would spread across thousands of years?

3. On what premise do the authors of the report conclude that Estonia is capable of building a reliable and safe nuclear power plant, given our lack of experience in this domain and the administrative capacity of the Estonian state, which has been rather thin, to say the least?

Unfortunately, the reliability of nuclear power plants is a mystery. Even the Finns, who have much more experience with nuclear power than we do, are currently struggling to keep their Olkiluoto 3 reactor running normally, with frequent reports of breakdowns. It took Finland 18 years to build.

The report, which was supposed to help the government and the Riigikogu decide whether or not to go nuclear in Estonia, does not fulfill this purpose because it does not offer any options.

Would it be practical to introduce nuclear energy in Estonia? No one is surprised that the answer is "yes." The question that should have been asked is, "What do we have to give up because of nuclear power?"

According to Jaan Kalda, a physics professor at Tallinn University of Technology, one of the report's key shortcomings is that it does not have a long-term view of the Estonian energy market: "I would have loved to see their forecasts for the development of technologies that compete with nuclear. How storage, hydrogen, and renewables will develop. What would the energy market look like in 40 years?"

Summing up

Given these long-standing, complicated, and potentially insoluble issues, an extensive and inclusive debate needs to take place in Estonia. These questions must be answered clearly and convincingly.

We have alternative energy sources and solutions to meet Estonia's energy security needs, which also address environmental and security concerns. Estonia must exercise the outmost caution and moderation, weighing all risks and opportunities to ensure the safety of its people and environment. Let's just consider that the cost of one wrong step could make Estonia uninhabitable for centuries.


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Editor: Kaupo Meiel, Kristina Kersa

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