Almost 25 years after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine contaminated a large swathe of territory across Europe, several Eastern European countries are embarking on new and ambitious plans to construct new nuclear power plants. Ostensibly, the main reason for the development is a desire to end dependence on Russian oil and gas, supplies of which have been cut off periodically to Ukraine and Belarus in particular.
The new programs are costly and controversial, and although there is far more emphasis on safety than in the late Soviet period, a huge build-up of capacity in particular regions has residents fearful of the impact of an accident.
Ukraine currently has 15 reactors, which provide about 50% of its electricity. After the closure of Chernobyl in 2000, emphasis switched to the completion of new reactors—Khmelnytsky-2 and Rivne-4—in western Ukraine, though the largest nuclear plant in Europe is Enerhodar, near Zaporizhzhya on the Dnipro River, which has 6 Russian-manufactured water-pressured reactors (VVER), each of 1,000 megawatts (MW) capacity.
Three years ago, the Ukrainian government approved plans for the construction of twenty new reactors by 2030, including 11 new units and 9 to replace existing ones. The first two units to come on line will be Khmelnytsky 3 and 4 units by 2017, construction on which was halted when Ukraine imposed a moratorium on building new reactors in 1990. About 85% of the financing for these new units will come from a Russian loan.
At the same time, with the aid of the European Bank and a large donation from the European Commission, the International Chernobyl Shelter Fund is to construct a new cover for the destroyed fourth reactor at Chernobyl at a cost of around US$1 billion.
To the north, Belarus has also announced plans to build its first nuclear power plant, commencing with two Russian-made VVER-1000 reactors, which are anticipated to come into service in 2016 and 2018 respectively. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has approved the plan, and the site selected is in Hrodna region, close to the border with Lithuania.
Lukashenka has angrily criticized Russia for raising the prices of imported gas and for its plans to build a transmission pipeline through the Baltic States, thereby depriving both Ukraine and Belarus of profits on gas supplied to Central and Western Europe.
The location of the Belarusian construction has raised concerns in Lithuania, as it is dangerously close to the capital Vilnius. However, Lithuania has similar problems. When it joined the European Union in 2004, it agreed to close its Ignalina station (two graphite-moderated 1,500 MW reactors) by the end of 2009. Ignalina has supplied electricity to several countries, including Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad region. Lithuania is now commissioning bids from European Union investors for a replacement station in the same location.
In 2008, Russia’s nuclear energy authority—Rosatom—revealed a new program to build a 1200 MW plant near Sovetsk in the Kaliningrad enclave by 2016. Once again the construction would be very close to Lithuania, this time to its northern border. Residents of Kaliningrad have questioned the need for the plant and a survey reveals that 26% oppose it and a further 43% are concerned about its safety.
Poland has long relied on its coal industry to supply its energy needs and abandoned plans to build a station at Zarnowiec in the 1980s. However, the Polish government energy industry has long focused on lignite coal, which poses an environmental hazard. Thus Warsaw has also announced plans to construct two nuclear reactors by 2020, with the abandoned Zarnowiec site discussed as a possible location.
The recovery of nuclear power in the area most affected by the world’s worst nuclear disaster is remarkable. Either these governments are seeking more economic independence or else they regard the atomic option as the least ecologically hazardous of energy industries.
However, the potential problems are huge. Other than Russia, none of the states has adequate storage sites for radioactive waste. Most lack domestic technology and expertise. Only Russia and Ukraine possess adequate supplies of uranium; and only Russia of the expanding countries manufactures nuclear reactors.
The biggest problem of all is lack of funding. Whereas Lithuania can anticipate financial support from the EU for its replacement station, Ukraine and Belarus must seek investment elsewhere. Paradoxically, they are reliant primarily on Russian loans and technology to develop an industry intended to reduce dependence on their troublesome neighbor.
Finally, some 7 million people inhabiting this part of Europe are living on lands affected by radiation from Chernobyl. The accident continues to raise health concerns and long-living radio-nuclides remain in the soil. Yet a massive nuclear energy expansion program is in place. It is reminiscent of the Soviet plans of the 1970s and 1980s, and equally unrealistic.
(First published in the EDMONTON JOURNAL, 13 October 2009)