After Fukushima: Assessing nuclear power projects in CEE/SEE

The critical situation at the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has already influenced European energy policies but may have limited impact in Central Eastern Europe. The Japanese nuclear crisis is in its early days, but is characterized by the attempt to prevent massive amounts of radiation being unleashed from damaged nuclear reactors, destabilized by two cataclysmic natural disasters. Whether a third man-made calamity, can be prevented remains to be seen. In Europe the political response was swift. Germany shut down seven nuclear power plants and is conducting a full scale review, while the European Commission is developing common EU nuclear standards to be issued in a Directive in the summer. In Central Eastern and Southeast Europe the disaster will have a limited impact on the already faltering efforts to build new nuclear power generation.

The social and political tensions over nuclear power center on the dangers of harnessing an inherently harmful energy source to produce ‘clean’ electricity. Despite these misgivings, the necessity for low carbon energy sources is critical. The projected ‘renaissance’ of nuclear power was seen as playing an important role that could contribute to producing sufficient quantities of power with zero carbon emissions. In Central Eastern and South East Europe, most countries have a long history with nuclear power. They now have plans to expand the amount of nuclear power, however these are faltering due to the significant upfront costs. Any reconsideration of expansion plans in this region due to events in Japan will be minimal.

Projects throughout the region can be seen to be far from being developed. Romania has long considered adding additional nuclear capacity to use for electricity exports and to replace aging coal fired generation. In January 2011, the consortium that was to build two nuclear reactor blocs in Romania fell apart; structuring the financing for the facility was a continuous problem. In March 2011, Bulgaria began to reexamine the cost and viability of a 2,000 MW nuclear power plant to be built by Russia’s Rosatom; disagreement over the price and financial conditions are the main points of contention. The Czech Republic and Poland both have plans to build new reactors but deadlines are continuously missed. Hungary remains committed to replacing its present nuclear capacity by 2030; the bidding process for building another bloc is to begin in 2013. Financing is expected to come from the private sector but Hungary is strongly politically committed to nuclear power and with a lack of natural resources for low carbon generation, the state may finance portions of this project. For all these projects, like in Hungary, it will have to be determined whether it is in the national strategic interest to build these plants as they will need to shoulder more of the financial risks to make the projects viable.

Pressure to actually build these plants in the CEE and SEE region may increase after 2013. This is when the EU’s Emissions Trading System will require power plants to purchase carbon allowances. The cost of producing electricity from coal will increase and be felt by consumers. As one utility executive stated in an interview (drawn from a recent research project by this author), “In Europe they push for dramatic and rapid CO2 targets, but no nuclear, no coal, whatever technological mix is left is costly and will not support European industry” (Energy Utility Executive 2009).  This is the crux of nuclear power: What are projected high costs today may be low in 2030 when carbon based energy will be substantially more expensive.

The safety issues of nuclear power will always surround the technology. Events in Japan, presented in dramatic helicopter water drops, demonstrate the failure of the technology. However, the countries in the CEE and SEE regions are geographically close to the last nuclear disaster of Chernobyl, the experience of nuclear failure is not new. While there has been considerable activity over the past week in Western Europe and at the EU level, suspending and reconsidering nuclear projects, none of these projects in the CEE and SEE region have received similar treatment. In fact Reuters reported on March 17, 2011, the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister, Petr Necas stating, “There is absolutely no reason to limit (Czech nuclear power plants). The government would have to be a bunch of fools to take such a step.” The region remains dedicated to nuclear power.

The current impediments to nuclear power projects in the region are numerous enough, new safety concerns may add an additional variable in decision making, but will not sink the projects. Over the long term, the necessity of having affordable base load generation will prompt the building, of what could be described as, ‘debt prone and day-late’ nuclear power plants. The present EU energy strategy is focused on stopping the much broader disaster of climate change. Nuclear power will remain a central pillar for CEE and SEE countries to reduce their carbon emissions.