EU Nuclear Fears Drive Attempt To Shut Down Belarus Nuke Power Plant
Europe is terrified of nuclear energy. Reasons differ. For one country, Lithuania, it’s a question of lost market share for its very expensive LNG plant. For others, it’s a question of safety and a political push to go green.
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So just when Belarus is set to flip the switch on a 2,400-megawatt nuclear power station on the Lithuania border, the knives come out in Europe.
Nuclear is losing its appeal on the economic and political grounds in EU countries due to the green focus and safety concerns that stemmed from the Japanese Fukushima plant damage caused by a 2011 tsunami. It appears that the giant wave had more impact in Europe than in Japan, which reopened nearly all of the power plants it closed, except Fukushima Daiichi, which was heavily damaged and decommissioned.
As a result of the disaster, Germany turned totally against nuclear energy. Their power plants are scheduled to be fully shut down by 2023. Germany is pushing for natural gas, wind and solar instead.
Where electricity demand is not growing, such as in the aging cities and towns of Europe, including in Lithuania, where the population in 2020 is seen contracting by a little over 1%, any new source of electricity heightens competition among energy sellers.
Nuclear represents a critical component in the energy mix of 13 of the 27 EU countries, accounting for almost 26% of the electricity produced in the EU, based on open source government data. Each country decides what to use to generate electricity. The EU is there to regulate the safe disposal of radioactive nuclear waste, always a sticking point for the anti-nuclear types.
“Nuclear waste today is all done at the site of production. It’s not out blowing in the wind,” says Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress, and an advocate for nuclear power.
France used to be Europe’s biggest proponent of nuclear, mainly because they had their own version of Rosatom and Westinghouse, and still do at companies like Framatome, now owned by EDF. But in order to fall in line with the green agenda in northern Europe, France has agreed to cut its nuclear “footprint”. Over the next 15 years, France is set to go from 75% of its electricity coming from nuclear power plants, to 50%. Within the EU, they are the largest exporter of electricity thanks to the very low cost of nuclear power generation, bringing in over 3 billion euros a year, according to data from the World Nuclear Association.
“The problem with solar and wind being used to replace fossil fuels and nuclear is that it needs a lot of land, and a lot more distribution lines,” says Shellenberg. “You need tons of solar plants and the output is not as reliable, which is why they rely on Russian natural gas for a baseload.”
Belarus As Energy ‘Threat’
That’s where Belarus comes in. Their power plant, run by Belenergo, is all Russian nuclear tech from Rosatom. It has been years in the works and should be connected this year to the power grid. Lithuania, an EU member, doesn’t want it anywhere near them and they don’t want their neighbors using it for electricity.
Belarus is not a member of the European Union, nor are they seeking membership, but because of the fact that they are next door, Belarus sought EU support to make sure they were abiding by their safety standards.
Rosatom is one of the world’s largest nuclear reactor manufacturers. Lithuania has thrown everything plus the kitchen sink at their Belarus project – claiming it’s unsafe, it’s in an area known for earthquakes, it’s bad for regional energy security, and it’s Russian.
Lithuania cited the so-called “Gudogai” earthquake that took place on a farm close to the Belarus power plant site way back in 1908. The strength of that earthquake is up for debate as it caused zero physical damage to nearby buildings and the only people to talk about it at the time in the press were two local farmers.
The safety argument won’t be enough.
For Lithuania, which invested a lot of money in a liquefied natural gas floating storage and regasification unit in Klaipeda a few years ago, the Belarussian nuke plant means it is a potentially cheaper, and definitely cleaner, readily available source of power generation for neighboring nations. In theory, that takes Lithuania out of the market. It’s the reason they are working overtime to get countries not to buy energy generated from it.
Lithuania claims that its argument against the project has nothing to do with economics of it.
“It’s not unusual or unthinkable for a country to raise safety concerns over a nuclear power project in the adjacent country, especially when the project is located near the border,” says Janet Nakano, senior fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
One of the premier analysts on Eastern European energy markets and Russia, Sijbren de Jong, writing in the EU Observer in 2017 before ground breaking even began, said this was a “disaster waiting to happen.” But is it?
Going The Extra Mile
The Rosatom reactor is a pressurized water reactor (PWR), the most common and, historically, the safest nuclear technology. There’s been no incidents of a PWR meltdown in any country in the world since its invention, or around a 65 years positive record.
Rosatom’s VVER-1200 reactor is being built in at least highly selective EU country – Finland. China decided to switch from Westinghouse’s flagship AP1000 reactor to Russia’s VVER-1200 recently. The latest modification of VVER-1200 was certified by the European Union in June 2019.
The Belarus power plant has been under careful eye by local and global watch dogs. Much, if not all, of this is due to Lithuania lobbying for it.
In 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s then-director general , the late Yukiya Amano, said the country and Rosatom were adhering to standard nuclear safety rules. Between 2016 and 2017, the IAEA’s Site and External Events Design (SEED) team check it out and said in a 32-page report that it passed muster and was in line with what they recommended.
That same year, Belarus invited EU nuclear safety agency Ensreg to stress test it for earthquakes, floods, hurricane force winds and other typical natural disasters. It got an “overall positive” review.
Lithuanian officials visited the plant in July 2018, too, and were given access to the construction plans and training center, their Embassy said, but did not expand on what they saw.
As recent as August 2019, the IAEA was back at it with a safety review team, known as their Pre-OSART unit, comprised of nuke power experts from 8 countries, including the U.S. and Brazil. They inspected the construction site over a two week period and gave it a thumbs up.
Even if Lithuania’s fears of ‘another Chernobyl’ were genuine (which is difficult to buy as the country operated its own Soviet-built Chernobyl-style reactor for decades and in back in 2008 voted overwhelmingly on a referendum to keep it running despite the EU demands to close it down) the risks of a meltdown have to be put into a perspective.
According to the World Health Organization, that infamous 1986 meltdown caused — and will have caused — around 4,000 premature deaths over decades.
Lithuania is importing a lion share of its electricity from countries reliant on coal which is responsible for 22,300 premature deaths every year.
A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that natural gas as a source of energy is associated with 2.3 times higher fatalities per unit of electricity than nuclear, for coal it is 128.5 times higher.
Still, it’s all about business. Lithuania has an energy market to protect and that’s made them look anti-nuclear.
Belarus Boycott Attempt
Since the outset, Lithuania’s parliament agreed to boycott any electricity coming into the country from the Belarus power station.
Last October, Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda, tried to get the EU to declare the power plant a problem for Belarus sovereignty, arguing that Belarus independence from Russia was vital to Lithuania’s national security.
Belarus is at least 90% dependent on Russia already, for natural gas. The nuclear power plant is a way to get out from under Gazprom’s thumb. The nuclear power plant is estimated to reduce the country’s natural gas demand by about five billion cubic meters annually.
This is it in a nutshell: the main reason Lithuania wants to prevent any possible transit through shared electric power lines connecting Belarus into its home country, plus Poland, plus Latvia, plus Estonia, is a matter of energy market share.
Lithuania invested almost 500 million euros in their aspiration of being an LNG supplier for an EU supposedly weening neighbors from Russia. Since then, their EU partners, led by Germany, collaborated with Gazprom to build a second natural gas pipeline to Germany, undercutting Lithuania.
Lithuania’s LNG is more expensive than Russia’s natural gas. It’s also much more expensive than Belarussian nuclear power.
Lithuania once had to force its own local utilities to buy LNG imported from Norway and U.S. to keep the Klaipeda project viable, sources on the ground who could not be quoted on the record, said.
The connection of the Belarus nuclear plant will drive electricity prices lower. There is no chance that Lithuania’s LNG can compete with that, unless oil skyrocketed back into the $80s, or EU governments banned import of electricity from non-EU members.
It is a bitter irony that Lithuania had to shut down its only nuclear power plant, also a Russian-built reactor from the Soviet Union days, as a condition of joining the EU in 2009.
At the time, that single reactor covered 80% of the country’s electricity needs.
Considering Washington couldn’t stop a German-Russia coalition to build Nord Stream 2, it is unlikely there will be any political will anywhere outside of Vilnius to ban Belarus from building a nuclear reactor or selling its electricity to its neighbors in the EU.
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