Several days ago, in my initial post about the Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute, I alluded to the fact that the European Union leaders must accept some of the blame for the Europe’s growing vulnerability to aggressive use of easily interrupted natural gas as a political weapon. I made a comment that deserves some follow-up.
Here is the comment that I made in my entry titled Who will blink – Russia, Ukraine or someone else.
An interesting background story, however, is how European actions during the past decade have increased the importance of the gas supply from Russia. The EU’s stubborn demand, for example, to shut down a number of well operated nuclear power plants with excellent safety records has caused a rapid increase in the use of natural gas to supply electricity and to supply domestic heating systems that were previously supplied with nuclear power.
Lithuania is one of the affected countries. In January 2005, Lithuania relented to EU pressure and shut down one of the two nuclear power plants that had provided 80% of their total electrical energy supply. During much of the year the plants produced more electricity than Lithuania needed; its Baltic neighbors purchased that electricity from the grid linking the countries at a favorable price that still provided an important revenue stream to Lithuania.
The reactor that was shut down produced 1250 MW of electricity. If that output was replaced by a modern Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) power plant, that plant would burn about 6.2 million cubic meters of gas each day. However, it is more likely that the power was replaced by a combination of less efficient gas, a lot of coal and perhaps a tiny portion of wind energy. The fuel costs to run the nuclear plant were less than $150,000 per day, the replacement gas would cost $1.4 Million at the current European market price of $230 per thousand cubic meter.
As a condition to its entry into the EU, Lithuania was forced to shut down one of the two reactors and agree to shut down the remaining reactor by 2009. In January 2005, when the first reactor was shut down, Lithuania’s president, Valdas Adamkus, stated that the country would build a new reactor before shutting down the remaining one. Most observers agree that there is little chance that a new reactor could be built by 2009, but the Adamkus could have been telling the truth in a different way. By 2009, it might be very difficult for the EU to force Lithuania to follow through with the shutdown.
In the year since shutting down the first reactor, the Lithuanian government has been laying the foundation for its next reactors. According to a 4 January 2006 Baltic Times article titled Government invites investors to consider building new nuclear plant the government is ready to release a request for proposals for that new plant. The public supports that action, recent polls indicate that more than 60% of the Lithuanian population approves of nuclear power while less than 27% actually opposes it. It is likely that the process to select a vendor, license and build the plant will take 8-10 years.
Some might ask, “Why would the EU force one of its poorest potential members to shut down 20 year old, emissions free, nuclear plants with good operating history, low marginal costs, and representing 80% of the electricity supply system as a condition for entry into the union?”
Despite numerous physical upgrades and improvements to procedures and oversight, European commissioners are convinced that RBMK reactors are fatally flawed and must be shut down as soon as possible. The commissioners are not alone, many people in the nuclear field that do not understand the details of reactor plant operation and design are also convinced that these reactors, with similar designs as the one that operators destroyed at Chernobyl, are dangerous and must be shut down.
In April 1996, on the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, I wrote The Accident at Chernobyl: What Caused the Explosion to try to explain to people just what happened. It was a feeble attempt to let my nuclear industry colleagues, at least, understand that it is an gross oversimplification to state that the lack of a full containment means that the design is flawed and all operating reactors with the same design should be shut down.
The truth is that safety is a combination of design, construction, operation and maintenance. Nothing is perfectly safe, but even RBMK reactors can be operated safely, with far less danger to the public than using natural gas or even than doing without energy.
A severe winter with insufficient fuel resources and inadequate personal income can be very dangerous to people’s health and welfare. A series of severe winters while waiting to build new plants that take at least 8-10 years from project inception to completion would be even worse.
Of course if your business is to sell coal, oil, natural gas, windmills, biomass, or even replacement reactors, you might feel differently about the need to shut down those operating systems. The people in those businesses have lot of political friends; some of them are even the kind that can be swayed with the promise of lucrative jobs after their government service is complete.