EU nuclear fears lead to attempt to shut down Belarus nuclear power plant

Europe is afraid of nuclear energy. The reasons differ. For one country, Lithuania, this is a loss of market share for its very expensive LNG plant. For others, it’s a matter of security and political impetus to go green.

So, just as Belarus prepares to ignite a 2,400 megawatt nuclear power plant on the Lithuanian border, the knives are rolling out in Europe.

Nuclear power is losing its economic and political appeal in EU countries due to the focus on the environment and safety concerns resulting from the damage to Japan’s Fukushima power station by the 2011 tsunami The giant wave appears to have had more of an impact in Europe than in Japan, which reopened almost all of the power plants it closed except for Fukushima Daiichi, which was heavily damaged and downgraded.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Germany completely opposed nuclear power. Their power plants should be completely closed by 2023. Germany is instead pushing for natural gas, wind and solar.

Antinuclear Europe

Where demand for electricity is not increasing, as in aging cities in Europe, including Lithuania, where the population in 2020 is expected to contract by just over 1%, any new source of electricity is stepping up. competition between energy sellers.

Nuclear is an essential component of the energy mix of 13 of the 27 EU countries, accounting for almost 26% of the electricity produced in the EU, according to 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, still a sticking point for anti-nuclear people.

“Today, nuclear waste is all processed at the production site. It’s not about blowing in the wind, ”says Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress and advocate for nuclear energy.

France was the biggest European nuclear promoter, mainly because they had their own version of Rosatom and Westinghouse, and still do so in companies like Framatome, now owned by EDF. But to be part of the green agenda in Northern Europe, France has agreed to reduce its nuclear “footprint”. In the next 15 years, France is expected to increase from 75% of its electricity 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, earning more than 3 billion euros per year, according to data from the World Nuclear Association.

“The problem with using solar and wind to replace fossil fuels and nuclear is that it takes a lot of land and a lot more distribution lines,” says Shellenberg. “You need tons of solar power plants and the production is not as reliable, which is why they depend on Russian natural gas for a base load.”

Belarus, an energy “threat”

This is where Belarus comes in. Their power plant, run by Belenergo, is made up entirely of Russian nuclear technology from Rosatom. It has been under construction for years and should be connected to the electricity grid this year. Lithuania, a member of the EU, does not want it near them and does not want its neighbors to use it for electricity.

Belarus is not a member of the European Union nor is it seeking to become a member, but due to being a neighbor, Belarus has requested EU support to ensure that it meets its safety standards.

Rosatom is one of the largest manufacturers of nuclear reactors in the world. Lithuania threw everything, plus the kitchen sink, into its project in Belarus, claiming it’s dangerous, it’s in an area known for earthquakes, it’s bad for energy security regional and that it is Russian.

Lithuania cited the so-called “Gudogai” earthquake which took place on a farm near the site of the Belarusian power station in 1908. The strength of this earthquake is open to debate as it did not cause any damage. physical damage to neighboring buildings and the only people to talk about at the time in the press were two local farmers.

The security argument will not suffice.

For Lithuania, which has invested a lot of money in a Floating liquefied natural gas storage and regasification unit in Klaipeda A few years ago, the Belarusian nuclear power plant means that it is a potentially cheaper and certainly cleaner and readily available source of electricity generation for neighboring countries. In theory, this takes Lithuania out of the market. This is the reason why they are working overtime to get countries not to buy the energy produced from it.

Lithuania claims that its argument against the project has nothing to do with the economics of it.

“It is not unusual or unthinkable for a country to raise security concerns about a nuclear power project in the adjacent country, especially when the project is located near the border,” says Janet. Nakano, senior researcher in the Energy Security and Climate Change program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

One of the main analysts of the energy markets of Eastern Europe and Russia, Sijbren de Jong, writing in the EU Observer in 2017, even before work began, said it was “an imminent disaster”. But is it?

Go further

The Rosatom reactor is a pressurized water reactor (PWR), the most widely used nuclear technology and, historically, the safest. There have been no deaths in a PWR plant in any country in the world since its invention, nor a positive toll of around 65 years.

Rosatom’s VVER-1200 reactor is under construction in at least one highly selective EU country – Finland. China decided to switch from Westinghouse’s flagship AP1000 reactor to Russian VVER-1200 recently. The last modification of the VVER-1200 was approved by the European Union in June 2019.

Belarus’ power plant has been closely monitored by local and global watchdogs. Much, if not all, of this is due to Lithuania’s lobbying on its behalf.

In 2016, the then Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the late Yukiya Amano, said the country and Rosatom were respecting standard nuclear safety rules. Between 2016 and 2017, the IAEA’s Site and External Events Design (SEED) team verified this and stated in a 32 page report that it was successful and that it was in line with what they recommended.

In the same year, Belarus invited the European nuclear safety agency Ensreg to stress test it for earthquakes, floods, hurricane force winds and other typical natural disasters. It obtained an “overall positive” opinion.

Lithuanian officials also visited the factory in July 2018 and were given access to the construction plans and the training center. their embassy said, but did not expand on what they saw.

As recently as August 2019, the IAEA was back with a safety review team, known as the Pre-OSART unit, made up of nuclear energy experts from 8 countries, including United States. United and Brazil. They inspected the construction site over a two week period and gave it a boost.

Even though Lithuania’s fears of ‘another Chernobyl’ were real (which is hard to buy as the country has operated its own Soviet-built Chernobyl-style reactor for decades and in 2008 voted overwhelmingly in a referendum for keep it running despite the EU’s demands to shut it down) the risks of collapse must be put into perspective.

According to World Health Organization, that infamous 1986 collapse caused – and will have caused – around 4,000 premature deaths over the decades.

Lithuania imports a lion’s share of its electricity from coal-dependent countries which is responsible for 22,300 premature deaths every year.

A study of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that natural gas as an energy source is associated with 2.3 times more deaths per unit of electricity than nuclear, for coal it is 128.5 times higher.

However, it is all about business. Lithuania has an energy market to protect and that makes them appear anti-nuclear.

Attempted boycott of Belarus

From the start, the Lithuanian parliament agreed to boycott any electricity entering the country from the Belarusian power plant.

Last October, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda tried to get the EU to declare the power plant a problem for Belarusian sovereignty, arguing that Belarusian independence from Russia was vital for the national security of Lithuania.

Belarus is already at least 90% dependent on Russia for natural gas. The nuclear power station is a means of escaping the tutelage of Gazprom. It is estimated that the nuclear power plant will reduce the country’s demand for natural gas by about five billion cubic meters per year.

Here it is in a nutshell: the main reason Lithuania wants to prevent any possible transit through shared power lines connecting Belarus to its home country plus Poland plus Latvia plus Estonia is a matter of share. energy market.

Lithuania has invested nearly € 500 million in its aspiration to become an LNG supplier for an EU supposedly neighboring Russia. Since then, their European partners, led by Germany, have worked with Gazprom to build a second gas pipeline to Germany, overtaking Lithuania.

Lithuanian LNG is more expensive than Russian natural gas. It is also much more expensive than Belarusian nuclear power.

Lithuania has already had to force its own local utilities to buy LNG imported from Norway and the United States to keep the Klaipeda project viable, said sources on the ground who could not be cited in the file.

The connection of the Belarusian nuclear power plant will lower electricity prices. There is no way Lithuanian LNG could compete with this, unless oil skyrocketed in the 1980s or EU governments ban the import of electricity from non-member countries. of the EU.

It’s a bitter irony that Lithuania had to shut down its only nuclear power plant, also a reactor built by Russia since the days of the Soviet Union, as a condition of EU membership in 2009.

At the time, this single reactor 80% covered of the country’s electricity needs.

Considering that Washington was unable to prevent a German-Russian coalition from building Nord Stream 2, it is unlikely that there is any political will outside Vilnius to prohibit Belarus from building a nuclear reactor or selling its electricity to its EU neighbors.

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