Eastern Europe looks to nuclear revival
For Eastern Europe, a nuclear revival offers a way to lessen dependency on Russian natural gas and oil. Despite memories of the devastating accident at the Soviet-built reactor at Chernobyl...
From the Baltic to Bulgaria, governments in Eastern Europe are increasingly looking toward a revival of nuclear power generation to meet growing energy demand.
The renewed interest in nuclear energy in a region that has been under intense pressure from the European Union to close unsafe older-generation plants coincides with a lively debate in several West European countries, in which governments seek cleaner energy options to combat climate change.
Even in Germany, where public opinion has traditionally opposed nuclear energy, the coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is considering reversing a decision to phase out the country`s nuclear plants.
For Eastern Europe, a nuclear revival offers a way to lessen dependency on Russian natural gas and oil. Despite memories of the devastating accident at the Soviet-built reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986, governments in Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia are renovating old nuclear plants or building new ones.
"There is a very strong interest and tangible progress in plans to build new power plants in the countries of Eastern Europe," said Vince Novak, director of the nuclear safety department at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, which was established in the early 1990s to help Eastern and Central Europe make the transition to a market economy.
Since the creation of the bank, a priority for its nuclear energy experts has been to ensure that nuclear plants in the region meet strict safety standards.
"We are focused on one of the prerequisites for a nuclear renaissance: safety," Novak said in an interview. "We work for nuclear safety, decommissioning of first-generation Soviet reactors, safe and secure management of nuclear waste and spent fuel. These are the requisites."
But the idea of using nuclear power to improve energy security is earning governments sharp criticism from advocates of renewable energy sources. Critics accuse the governments of resorting to the easy option of nuclear power rather than taking difficult decisions to encourage energy efficiency, cut waste and foster renewable energy sources.
"The nuclear lobby is very strong in our country," said Aleksandras Paulauskas, executive director of the independent Lithuanian Wind Energy Association, "but also in other countries in the region."
"Look at where we are located. We could easily produce reliable amounts of energy by using the wind from the Baltic Sea. But there is no political will to consider this option."
Five offshore wind farm projects were recently approved by the local authority for the Lithuanian port city of Klaipeda. But the government is nevertheless pushing ahead with plans for a new nuclear plant at Ignalina, in northeast Lithuania, to replace Soviet-era reactors there. One of the reactors was closed in 2004 under pressure from the EU, while another is scheduled to be closed late next year.
The initial idea behind the Ignalina-2 project was to supply electricity not only to Lithuania but also to neighboring Poland, Estonia and Latvia. But squabbles over the allocation of energy and ownership led to the abandonment of that ambitious attempt at regional energy cooperation. The Lithuanian government now hopes to build a plant to serve its own needs, despite the cost.
Meanwhile, in Central Europe, the Czech government has made nuclear expansion a crucial element of its energy policy. The country already has six reactors, which generate a third of the electricity it consumes. According to CEZ, the Czech Power Company that owns and operates the plants, two more will be built, one of them to replace an existing unit at Dukovany, in the south of the country, after 2020.
Slovakia also is expanding capacity, after having been pressed to close two high-risk reactors at its Bohunice plant as a precondition for joining the EU. The closures turned Slovakia from an energy exporter to an energy importer. To reverse course, the Slovak government decided last year to build two new reactors at the Mochovce power plant, which it hopes will be operational by 2013.
Hungary currently has no plans to build new nuclear plants but the government has agreed to extend by 20 years the life of the country`s four existing reactors at Paks, in the center of the country. That will take their operations to the mid-2030s.
Neighboring Romania has two commercial reactors, of which the second started operating in May 2007. The two now generate a fifth of Romania`s electricity.
But perhaps the most controversial nuclear expansion program in the region is in Bulgaria. The EU offered Bulgaria compensation of up to ?550 million, or $700 million, for closing four high-risk reactors at Kozloduy by 2006. The move was a condition for the country`s entry to the union in January 2007.
The two remaining Bulgarian reactors generate about 35 percent of the country`s electricity. But to replace the closed reactors, the government now wants to build a second nuclear power plant at Belene, on the Danube.
Despite safety concerns over Soviet-era reactors, some Bulgarian energy experts, including Ognyan Minchev, Bulgarian director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, say that the EU should never have insisted on the closures.
"The environmental lobbies in France and Germany joined forces to shut part of Kozloduy," Minchev said. "It was very damaging for Bulgaria. We used to export energy to other Balkan countries. We were left short after the government closed down some of the plants. That is why a new nuclear power plant is being built at Belene."
But Minchev acknowledges that not all questions concerning nuclear energy have been addressed. "The nuclear energy lobby is very strong here. And the government is not interested in considering other options," he said.
"Above all, the big questions of what to do with nuclear waste are just never discussed."