Estonia could get a nuclear power plant

Andrus Karnau
, journalist
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. Photo: Tairo Lutter

Searching for long-term solutions to help safeguard the Estonian economy from the price of energy crisis, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) and Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas (Center) support nuclear energy.

Both ministers remain cautious when talking about nuclear power but make no secret of their personal view. “I take a positive attitude toward nuclear energy;” Kallas told Postimees.

“If we want to talk about energy independence, we should bet on nuclear,” Aas said.

Preparations for a nuclear plant in Estonia have been ongoing since the summer of 2020 when then Environment Minister Rene Kokk put together a nuclear energy working group. One member of the latter is Fermi Energia that represents a group of entrepreneurs interested in constructing a small nuclear reactor in Estonia.

Nuclear energy was also on the table last Thursday when the government discussed ways of safeguarding the Estonian economy against energy price shocks in the future.

Because nuclear energy is heavily regulated on the international level, its implementation is far more complicated and time-consuming than building any other kind of power plant. Estonia would also have to construct a nuclear waste storage site. The form of energy also entails a political risk as there is plenty of anti-nuclear sentiment in Europe, with Germany and Sweden in the process of shutting down the industry. A referendum in Lithuania saw the people vote against the construction of a new nuclear plant in the country.

A billion euros

On the other hand, Finland is generating nuclear energy, with Russian reactors also just across the border. What is more, the government needs to find a way to generate electricity in a way that can be managed. Wind power is only available when there is wind, and while this risk can be partially managed by constructing offshore wind farms, the main power load will have to come from somewhere so to speak.

Aas said that the government will extend Eesti Energia’s obligation to maintain at least 1,000 MW of oil shale production capacity in Narva. The plants are operation at the moment, while the market price of electricity dropping back to the 2019 level would make their operation economically insensible for the national energy company.

The economy minister added that new dispatchable generation capacity will not be needed before 2030. After that, it is a choice between a natural gas or nuclear power plant. Because gas mainly comes from Russia in the region, Aas said it is a political risk he would not take.

“Preparations for launching preparations for preparing for a nuclear plant will take a little more time. The analysis was supposed to be ready by fall this year,” Aas said.

The minister added that Estonia would have to construct a permanent nuclear waste storage facility and that it would likely have to be built in Paldiski.

“The government wants an answer to the question of whether it would make economic sense to construct a nuclear plant in Estonia and how long it would take,” PM Kaja Kallas said.

A nuclear power plant would also require a legal framework, the creation of a nuclear watchdog and experts, as well as a Riigikogu-level decision for a nuclear operator. Therefore, it is understandable that Kallas and Aas choose their words carefully when talking about nuclear power.

“It would be most accurate to write that Taavi Aas does not rule out a nuclear power plant,” Aas said.

Asked about the difference between “wants to build” and “does not rule out,” Aas said that a lot of homework needs to be done before a choice can be made.

Founder of Fermi Energia, former Eesti Energia CEO Sandor Liive told Postimees last week that a small reactor with an output of 300 MW could become operation in 2031 if the stars align. The required investment would be roughly €1 billion.

Aas was less optimistic, considering how long preparation work could take.

Liive even secured a plot for the nuclear plant on the island of Suur-Pakri when he was still head of Eesti Energia. The company still has the property, while it has no one in charge of nuclear development at this time.

Postimees wrote in 2009 that the heat generated by a nuclear plant on Suur-Pakri would be enough for the capital’s needs. Then Paldiski Mayor Tõnis Mölder (Center) was very proud the city would have had the cheapest heating prices in the country.

Then Prime Minister Andrus Ansip (Reform) had a plan to join Latvia and Lithuania in investing in the new Ignalina power plant in 2006, which sparked quite a political backlash at the time. The joint Baltic and Polish nuclear plant eventually failed due to differences.

Long plan

Kallas presented the Riigikogu with an eight-point plan for energy generation in Estonia that would yield cheaper prices than what we have seen in recent months. The plan relies mainly on terrestrial and offshore wind farms. The government hopes to deliver new momentum for wind power developments for which purpose it has procured new defense radars as existing ones set height limitations for wind turbines.

Kallas has said that a balance needs to be struck between national defense, environmental conservation and the need for wind farms. Limitations put in place by the Environmental Board currently make it impossible to construct wind farms in a large part of Estonia.

Another great obstacle is the reluctance of local governments which the government hopes to remedy using the so-called local benefit act that would obligate developers to pay local governments and nearby residents compensation.

Kallas also said that an amendment will make it possible to construct pumped-storage plants in Paldiski and an oil shale mine in Ida-Viru County. Current legislation classifies the pumping of water in storage plants as electricity consumption that is subject to excise duty and other fees. While pumped-storage hydroelectricity can be classified as energy generation to which no such fees apply.