Monday, January 12, 2009

Should Soviet-style nuclear plants be reactivated?

Providing fuel is critical to generate power that keeps people warm, cooks their food, provides them light, and runs the tools they need to hold a job. But what happens when the fuel source they all rely on is no longer there? This is a growing problem around the world, both in underdeveloped and developed nations. The most recent examples show up on Energy Shortage, but the one that is currently drawing increasing attention is the fallout from the shut-off of gas by Russia. The government of Slovakia, given their responsibility for the welfare of their people, have decided to go ahead and re-start a nuclear power plant that had been mothballed. The European Union is concerned, and has said that it will “take action”, if the reactor is re-started.

The problem is a little complicated, since back when Slovakia applied for membership of the EU, one of the entry conditions was that this reactor at the Jaslovske Bohunice nuclear plant be closed. The plant was closed at the end of last year and, as the Austrian Environment Minister stated:
"We cannot accept the reopening of this unsafe reactor . . . Now it's up to the European Commission to strongly urge compliance with the accession agreement," said Nikolaus Berlakovich, Austrian environment minister.

In Brussels, officials made clear there could be "no legal basis" for Slovakia to reopen the plant.

Now this raises an interesting question – how else are the Slovaks going to be able to provide power to the people? Is the European Union telling them to freeze to death in the dark?

One presumes that there is not a whole lot of choice out there – and although this could be a case of the “Admiral’s Barge syndrome?” (In which, when the Navy is told to cut their budget, they never get rid of the barge, but always propose getting rid of a critical element such as an aircraft carrier battle group, and everyone says “gosh we can’t do that” and so the budget, and the barge, survive) the press stories seem to tell a different tale.

Clearly in Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries it is hard to deny that there is considerable hardship, since all gas was cut off to the country last Tuesday. To help the EU has offered them funds to put in a 70-km pipeline to tie the Bulgarian grid into the networks of Greece and Rumania. But that pipeline won’t be built in a day! So what are the people supposed to do in the interim?

In this particular case Ukraine has offered Bulgaria some 2.5 million cu m per day of the gas that is stored in Ukraine to help, but apparently there is not enough driving pressure in the pipeline to allow the gas to get through. In Bulgaria, in the meanwhile they are using the last remaining amounts that were in storage, and that is expected to run out this week. The small remaining gas producing field has virtually ceased production, and was planning on re-using the reservoir to store imported gas, but that change has been postponed. However the Galata field can only produce about 5% of that needed and hundreds of thousands of people have no power.

Bulgaria is also talking about re-opening a nuclear reactor, though again EU pressure may well keep it closed. There will be a small gas field, Kavarna, brought on stream at the end of this year, but that will not be enough, although with the addition of the Kaliakra field, which may also to come on stream this year, production may be sustained at around 20% of the country’s needs. (Though there may be some environmental issues).

Those developments are however a sidetrack from the original question of how a government deals with the lack of fuel that it populace has to have if it is not to start dying off. And that brings me back to the issue of the nuclear reactors, whether Bulgarian or Slovakian.

Slovakia anticipates that the re-start of their reactor can be completed this week, and power restored.
(Prime Minister) Fico told reporters that reneging on the terms of its EU membership was better than taking the risk that his country's electricity grid would collapse.

"We are facing a blackout here, therefore we have to act fast," said Fico, adding that the government would shut the reactor down again "as soon as the situation is stabilized."
The situation was made easier for Slovakia since the plant had only just been shut down at the end of last year. Opinions in the EU are more divided.
In Brussels, the European Commission said there was "no legal basis" for the nuclear re-launch, but conceded that Slovakia had a "real problem" with the gas shortage.
The Czech Republic, which was the other half of the former Czechoslovakia and just kicked off its current six month EU presidency, was even more sympathetic to Slovakia's plight.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek rejected all criticism on Sunday, pointing out the shortcomings of the EU's energy and security policies.

"At the moment, I take it rather as a demonstration of (Fico's) readiness to tackle an issue that the European Union cannot resolve for Slovakia -- a looming blackout," he said in Prague.

The question of providing adequate power is thus likely to become more of an issue over the next year, since once the reactor is shut down again it will likely take more effort to start it next time, and the EU in the interim might require some steps that would make it impractical for future restarts to occur. And they are certainly pressuring Bulgaria already not to follow this example.

But should a government have a fall-back energy source in case the primary supply fails? And if it should, what, and how much should there be, and who is going to pay for it? The Bulgarian reactor was closed down two years ago, but can be brought back to power in a month. If the crisis lasts that long, then by that point I expect that the power will be well received and the unpopularity of the government might be a little appeased. But what if those preventing the availability of power were shown to be doing so purely on environmental grounds? This may be a situation that strikes closer to home in the years ahead.

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