Baltic states aim to go nuclear but have to wait

Baltic states aim to go nuclear but have to wait
Lithuania is working on a plan to transfer radioactive waste that has been removed from the decommissioned Ignalina nuclear plant to a deep geological repository in the country, / EBRD
By Linas Jegelevicius in Tallinn April 18, 2024

First, it was Estonia that said it wants a compact, state-of-the art nuclear power plant built in the country in the future. Lithuania swiftly followed up, saying it also pins its hopes on nuclear energy. And, recently, Latvia, the third Baltic nation, admitted it is pondering a nuclear future, too, perhaps via a shared nuclear power project with Estonia to the north.

The three Baltic states – which have had no nuclear reactors since the closure of Lithuania’s Soviet-designed Ignalina plant 15 years ago – are now all looking at small modular reactors (SMRs), though no firm decisions have yet been taken. As the Baltic states move over to renewables in order to reduce their carbon emissions, SMRs could provide a back-up to irregular renewable energy output, while also enhancing energy security in the wake of the Ukraine war and rising demand due to the growing electromobility sector.

“It seems that nuclear energy, which saw a major blow in Japan’s Fukushima [nuclear plant disaster] is seeing a strong comeback – and the Baltics is not an exception,” Vidmantas Jankauskas, former head of Lithuania's Energy Pricing Commission and, now, international energy regulatory expert and independent analyst, told bne IntelliNews.

Juris Ozolins, a Latvian energy expert, adds that, with the growth for electricity demand in the Baltic region, and considering that solar and wind energy may not be always handy, nuclear power reemerges as “perhaps the most reliable” source of electricity.

Unlike solar and wind energy, which depend on natural conditions, nuclear plants allow for constant and reliable hydrogen production, making the process more stable and predictable regardless of the season, both analysts emphasise.

Baltic eyes are set on SMRs. When stacked up against large nuclear power plants, SMRs are thought to have several advantages: they  require a relatively small area of ​​land, meaning their area requirement can be measured in the dozens of hectares, not in the hundreds of hectares.

Compared with existing reactors, SMR designs are simpler, and, when it comes to the most important things, the security, they often relies on passive systems. This means that in such cases, no human intervention or external power sources are required to turn off the systems, as passive systems rely on physical phenomena such as convection and gravity.

Estonia shifts away from shale oil

Estonia is so far the only state to specify the capacity of the mooted plant – ca 400 MVA (megavolt amperes), equivalent to 400 MW.

According to the report unveiled by Estonia’s national nuclear energy working group last year, it would take 11 years to get it online after the decision to build it has been made.

“The decision has to be made by 2030, but it is not on the current Riigikogu [parliament] agenda,” a source told bne IntelliNews.

The working group’s 164-page report states, among other things, that a SMR should be constructed in a region with scarcer, below average earning population, located further afield from Tallinn, such as, for example, in Varbla, Loksa, Kunda and Toila regions. Any nuclear power plant must be located near a large water source such as the Baltic Sea.

Liis Eiser, Communication Project Manager at Elering, Estonia’s transmission system operator, told bne IntelliNews that “there is a public debate about nuclear power plants, but no decision has been made by government or potential investors”.

Estonia has set a goal of 100 per cent renewable energy sources for electricity generation by 2030.

She says a prognosis shows that, in 2030, there should be about 6,000 MW of energy production, of which around 3,000 MW would be wind and around 2,000 MW would be sun (and 1,000+ MW of on-demand capacities such as nuclear energy).

However, renewable energy generation can be unpredictable, particularly at 59 degrees North. Electricity storage facilities would be needed, to ensure the stability of supply and of prices, the Estonian Ministry of Climate said recently. Likewise, nuclear power would also act as a market stabiliser when renewable power generation was insufficient.

Estonia has also another good reason to go nuclear – the shale oil production it has relied for years is about to be phased out because of environmental concerns, although the country ramped up the excavation volume in the wake of the war in Ukraine.

Lithuania needs to fill power gap

Meantime, in Lithuania, there has been a buzz about nuclear energy  since March after the country's updated National Energy Independence Strategy was revealed by the energy ministry. It foresees more electricity production, more consumption, more hydrogen, as well  as a revival of nuclear energy through the development of SMRs.

Energy Minister Dainius Kreivys claims the so-called fourth-generation reactors are safer than those built in the past, and nuclear energy would reduce the burden on industry and consumers of maintaining the energy system.

Lithuania shut down its Soviet-type Ignalina nuclear power plant at the end of 2009, giving in to the pressure of the European Union, which maintained it was unsafe to use. Thus, Lithuania went from being a major power exporter to a power importer.

“We will need to make a decision after assessing the development of this technology. If we want to have a reactor around 2040, we will have to make a decision in around 2028-2030…We will see very clear costs and all the pros and cons, but this decision is a very important part of our strategy so that we can start following those technologies,” Kreivys told BNS, a Lithuanian newswire, adding that that future nuclear reactors in Lithuania would not be built by the state, but by privately-owned businesses.

Under the ministry's scenario, onshore wind farms (28.1 TWh), offshore wind farms (18.8 TWh), nuclear reactors (11.2 TWh), and solar power plants (9.5 TWh) are expected to generate the most electricity in 2050.

Meanwhile, hydrogen (35.5 TWh) and the rest of industry (12.6 TWh) and transport (6.3 TWh) are expected to be the largest consumers of electricity in 2050.

Lithuanian TSO Litgrid data shows that Lithuania produced almost 5.7 TWh of electricity last year and consumed 11.1 TWh.

“Renewable resources alone will not be enough to meet Lithuania's growing electricity consumption and its goals in the future, so mulling a nuclear power plant is logical,” Jankauskas says.

Both President Gitanas Nauseda and Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said following the revelation of the updated energy strategy that next-generation nuclear technology should be considered as an option.

According to Kreivys, the import of energy resources and increased electricity production remain Lithuania's key energy challenges.

Latvia does not want to lag behind

Latvia does not plan to lag behind its neighbours in its nuclear ambitions. The country’s Ministry of Climate and Energy (KEM) stated at the presentation of a report to the Saeima's [parliament] Environment, Climate and Energy Subcommittee in March that, in order not to increase Latvia's dependence on electricity from other countries, the possibility of developing nuclear energy should be considered.

The report also named six places in Latvia as potential sites for a nuclear reactor, one of which is at Lake Razna in Latgale region.

“In the timeline, we could talk about the year 2035, probably because there are more questions than answers at the moment,” the ministry says.

A second option for Latvia could involve Estonia, which is generally regarded as having better geological conditions for the construction of a nuclear plant. It would also solve the issue of nuclear waste storage, which worries Latvian environmental activists.

Yet Baiba Jakobsone, Deputy Director of the Strategic Coordination Department at the Latvian Ministry of Climate and Energy, told bne IntelliNews that “modular reactors have a long way to go.”

 “Latvia is interested in following the development of regulation [on nuclear power development] in Estonia, as a large part of the regulation is security-related. Estonia and Latvia have agreed to exchange information on regulatory progress,” she says, adding: “We are at an early planning stage now when we start discussions.”

In the quest, Latvia plans to carry out an in-depth study on the development of a nuclear energy programme in accordance with the guidelines developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“The ministry plans to conclude the procurement procedure for the studies by October this year,” Jakobsone says.

In line with the forecasts of the Latvian transmission system operator (JSC Augstsprieguma Tīkls) for an optimistic scenario, by 2030 wind energy will be the largest source of power, contributing 4,356 TWh per year (including 1,386 TWh by offshore wind and 2,97 TWh by onshore wind energy.

Large hydropower plants will remain significant and the second largest source of power with an estimated  contribution of 2,673 TWh. Meanwhile the role of gas is forecast to decline to approximately 0.233 TWh per year.

“Regardless of how much one is pro-wind and pro-solar, or pro any other [energy] source, nuclear energy provides something unique – reliability and comfortability that is not relevant to weather conditions. Even the countries with developed wind and solar energy understand that you need a counter-balancing energy source, which nuclear energy is,” Jankauskas emphasised.

Concurring, Juris Ozolins says: “Nuclear power plants still remains as perhaps the most reliable good-quality and the easiest-manageable source of electricity but the technology we want is still not here, so, like the others, we have to wait, but the picture by the end of the decade can already be different.”

“Nuclear power is seeing a lot of interest now…At the moment, we are in a kind of waiting mode, looking what will happen [with nuclear power] not only in Europe, but also in the United States and Canada and elsewhere…But nuclear energy now is in much better positions compared where it was just relatively recently, so talks about a renaissance of nuclear energy are not baseless,” he says.