A new nuclear power station will soon be going online – the seventeenth in the former Soviet region. It is being built in Belarus by Rosatom, who will start loading fuel rods into the reactor this August. Russia plans to build 15 nuclear reactors over the next decade. Does our region need new nuclear plants?
Since the early Nineties, the number of operational reactors in the world has not increased. Some new units were built, while others were closed down, leaving a stable total of 430 power stations. The percentage of energy produced by nuclear plants has fallen from 17% to 10%. Following the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, Belgium, Spain, and Germany plan to phase out all their nuclear plants. It seemed that nuclear power was doomed to extinction, but the “peaceful atom” was saved by … environmental considerations.
Since 2012, nuclear electricity production and the number of new reactors have been on the rise. Today, 55 plants are being built around the world, half of them in Asia. China is building twelve reactors, India – seven, and South Korea – four.
Delhi and Beijing’s interest in nuclear power is understandable – electricity consumption is growing, but they can’t build coal-fired power stations due to air pollution. Every year, 300,000 people die of respiratory illnesses caused by coal-fired plants. Ecologists estimate that, by 2056, a total of 200,000 people will have been affected by the aftermath of Chernobyl.
To cut its greenhouse-gas emissions, France has changed its mind on reducing its number of nuclear plants. In Central and Western Europe, old reactors’ lifetimes are being extended, and six new ones are under construction, one each in Finland and France, and two each in the UK and Slovakia.
The United Arab Emirates, Belarus, Bangladesh, and Turkey are all building their first nuclear plants. Egypt and Poland have also announced they intend to build nuclear plants.
If the Russian government achieves its aims, there will be. Eleven nuclear plants are operating in Russia today, mostly in western parts of the country. The Kremlin plans to build five more in the heart of Russia by 2035 – in Nizhny Novgorod, Kostroma region, Tatarstan, the South Urals and Yakutia.
A nuclear plant with one reactor is running in Armenia, and Yerevan is considering building a second. Ukraine has four nuclear plants, but no plans for new ones. Uzbekistan also wishes to join the nuclear club – by 2028, Rosatom will build a nuclear plant by Lake Aidarkul, near the Kazakh border.
In a year’s time, both reactors will go online at the Belarusian nuclear plant, but do Belarusians really need it?
“Belarus produces about 40 billion kilowatt-hours a year, and has existing natural-gas and fuel-oil facilities, so it needs no additional power. This was a geopolitical project conceived by the Russian Federation to export electricity from Belarus to Poland and the Baltic States,” Olga Kosharnaya, a representative of the Ukrainian Nuclear Forum Association, says.
The plant will produce the equivalent of half the total energy Belarus requires. Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic States have refused to buy surplus electricity from Minsk. To build the station, the Belarusian authorities took a $10 bn loan from the Kremlin.
Generating electricity at a nuclear plant costs half of what it would at a coal-fired plant, and four times less than a natural-gas plant.
Nuclear plants are also compact. A 1-gigawatt nuclear reactor produces as much energy as 3 million solar panels or 400 wind turbines. A reactor uses 20 tons of uranium fuel per year. A thermal power plant of the same capacity burns 1.7 million tons of coal.
But building nuclear plants is time-consuming and costly – 10 to 20 years for one reactor, at the cost of around $6 billion. Decommissioning a plant takes even longer. For example, to demolish a small nuclear plant in Mülheim-Kerlich, the German company RWE will spend 1 bn euros over 25 years.
Taking disposal costs into account, a kilowatt-hour produced at a nuclear plant costs four times more than that produced by a wind or solar plant. Other drawbacks of nuclear plants are the risk of accidents, and the issue of nuclear waste.
There have been three reactor-failure accidents at nuclear plants: Three Mile Island in America in 1979, Chernobyl in the USSR in 1986, and Fukushima in Japan in 2011. The latter two ended in massive radiation leakage, evacuations, and severe economic damage. Japan’s recovery from Fukushima will cost $85 billion.
Ecologists say that the Leningrad, Smolensk, and Kursk nuclear plants are Russia’s most dangerous. They still have Chernobyl-type reactors that were declared hazardous and shut down worldwide.
Nuclear waste is also hazardous, particularly spent nuclear fuel. After 60 years in operation, the Belarusian nuclear plant will have produced 12,500 cubic metres of low-level waste – that’s five full Olympic pools. Not to mention 230 cubic metres of high-level waste – or two rail tankers.
The issue of radioactive waste is still unresolved. Nuclear waste is usually stored at the plants themselves. The first long-term waste-disposal site, Onkalo, should be opening in western Finland in three years. Its builders anticipate that spent nuclear fuel will be stored beneath 500 metres of rock there for the next 100,000 years.
Yes, there are – so says global experience. The European Union’s electricity production is growing thanks not to nuclear plants, but renewable energy sources. Wind turbines, solar panels, and biomass boilers generate electricity increasingly closer to home. Large thermal and nuclear plants act as backup to prevent energy output fluctuations.
Over 17% of the European Union’s electricity is produced by wind and solar farms. In the past 15 years, that figure has doubled, while the percentage from nuclear plants has dropped from 32% to 25%.
“Nuclear power is the power of the past, because in the last 50 years or so, not one single new design has emerged, and no new models of nuclear power plants have gone into operation,” says Aleksandra Zayka feom Ecoaction NGO (Kyiv).
Even China, which is building nuclear reactors at an accelerated pace, is constructing even more solar and wind farms. Today, China’s wind turbines and solar panels now produce twice as much electricity as its nuclear plants (544 terawatt-hours vs 277 terawatt-hours).
Russia has no motivation to switch to renewable energy sources as it has an influential nuclear industry, cheap coal, oil and gas, and tailor-made infrastructure. The authorities estimate that solar and wind farms will be producing just 1% of the country’s electricity by 2024.
Nuclear plant construction has resumed worldwide due to climate change and air pollution. New reactors are being built primarily by India and China, countries that urgently need to replace unsustainable coal-fired power plants.
The European Union is investing in renewable solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy. Expensive, bulky, hazardous waste-ridden nuclear power stations look increasingly archaic. They serve as backup for the cheap, environmentally friendly, decentralised energy sources of the future – a future that post-Soviet countries are simply unable to keep up with.