TALLINN - Ministers and energy officials have begun to debate whether Estonia should consider building its own nuclear power plant as part of the country's long-term strategy to ensure energy independence.
Economic Affairs Minister Juhan Parts told ETV television on Feb. 27 that Estonia should make up its mind this year whether to erect its own atomic reactor. Any decision, he said, would not be final but be included into an overall plan for the country's energy strategy.
Estonia currently produces more than 90 percent of electricity needs on oil shale. But pursuant to the European Union reform package, the Baltic state will in all likelihood have to shut down the oil-shale fired plants in 2015, leaving the country utterly dependent on electricity imports.
For this reason, Estonia must diversify its electricity generation mix, the minister said, while ensuring base capacity 's or enough to ensure security 's through one alternative.
That alternative couldn't be wind energy, Parts said, but nuclear power could replace oil shale.
Regardless, prior to forfeiting oil-shale energy, Estonia's leaders must be clear what will be used as a replacement, the minister said, adding that in no case whatsoever should Estonia become an electricity importing country.
In the past Eesti Energia, the state-owned energy company, has expressed a willingness to study the nuclear option. Currently it is in talks to participate in nuclear projects in Finland and Lithuania.
The Lithuanian project, which would provide some 400 's 500 megawatts for Estonia, is behind schedule and may not come online until 2020, if not later. The Finnish project is even more opaque, though it involves acquiring a stake in a possible reactor, the country's sixth, that would be located in Loviisa, a town east of Helsinki on the Gulf of Finland. The proximity of this project makes it attractive for Estonian investment.
Currently Narva Power Plants have a capacity of 2,380 megawatts. If the plants 's named Eesti and Balti 's are indeed shut in 2015, Estonia would be at the mercy of Russia. The two countries' electricity networks are still part of the same grid.
Speaking last October at a regional forum, Parts said that Estonia had four long-term options for energy security: rebuild the oil shale plants, radically boost renewable energy, adopt nuclear energy or, lastly, import.
"Personally, I do not favor the latter option," he said at the time, adding that all options should be used.
Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said that the country should not completely abandon oil shale but must invest significantly more in efficient technologies and research and development in the field of energy.
Talk of a possible nuclear plant has galvanized environmentalists and opponents to the peaceful atom. The Green Party has submitted an official inquiry to Parts asking him to provide more information on the government's intentions.
Spokesman Marek Strandberg said the idea of building a nuclear plant has raised serious questions. "The public has so far been given very little substantive information about this hugely important issue," he said.
The Greens want to know about the type of the planned reactor, the size of investment and where the waste would be stored.
For now, Estonia continues to rely on oil shale. The government last year approved an 800 million euro investment plant for constructing two new 300-megawatt oil-shale fuelled generators.
The old blocks have to be phased out by 2016, so if no new ones are built, electric power generation will decline to only 60 percent of current domestic consumption in 2012, the government said.
To keep electricity generation at the present level it is necessary to build at least two new power blocks by 2012.
The Balti and Eesti power plants are the world's largest oil shale fueled power plants. They use about 11 million tons of oil shale annually.