Around the core
[b]Belarus, alongside the rest of the world, is preparing to mark the 25th anniversary of the catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Simultaneously, the collapsing reactors at the Japanese Fukushima station have aroused old fears regarding nuclear energy. However, it is impossible for us to set aside nuclear energy completely; our modern way of life demands that we produce energy in large quantities [/b]Albert Einstein was once asked why we created nuclear arms without the ability to control them. “Everything is very simple. Politics is far more complex than physics,” he responded. After the catastrophe at Fukushima, something similar could be said of nuclear reactors. Our ability to generate energy from almost nothing is perhaps among the greatest achievements of the last century. A real alternative to nuclear energy is yet to be invented. Even Japan, which survived Hiroshima before Fukushima, has no intention of rejecting the peaceful atom. What economic wonders would be possible without this technology?
Albert Einstein was once asked why we created nuclear arms without the ability to control them. “Everything is very simple. Politics is far more complex than physics,” he responded. After the catastrophe at Fukushima, something similar could be said of nuclear reactors. Our ability to generate energy from almost nothing is perhaps among the greatest achievements of the last century. A real alternative to nuclear energy is yet to be invented. Even Japan, which survived Hiroshima before Fukushima, has no intention of rejecting the peaceful atom. What economic wonders would be possible without this technology?
The Japanese tragedy shouldn’t inspire political speculations, but should rather stir serious discussion about security measures. The same applies in Belarus — about to launch construction of its first nuclear power station. Excavations for the foundations are scheduled to begin in September.
Renaissance after ‘nuclear winter’
However events develop at Fukushima, the world is hardly likely to turn from nuclear power. Germany, which has retired seven of its old nuclear power stations, is probably the only state to use such radical measures. Italy, which froze the development of its nuclear power immediately after the Chernobyl accident, is to host a referendum in summer on the renewal of its nuclear programme. Following the Japanese tragedy, the Chinese authorities have decided to postpone all new nuclear projects, wanting
to reconsider security.
Nothing has yet been heard regarding Japan’s revision of its nuclear plans; by 2020, nine new stations are supposed to be built there. Lithuania hasn’t changed its position either. Curiously, the more the construction of the Lithuanian nuclear power station lags behind that of the Belarusian plant, the stronger is Vilnius’ criticism of the Belarusian project. However, being asked directly, Lithuania’s Deputy Energy Minister, Romas ¦vedas, responds, “Now is the best time to construct nuclear power stations.”
At present, nuclear power stations generate around 14 percent of the world’s electricity. In Europe, this figure stands at 29 percent. Reactors in France generate 75 percent of all consumed energy — more than any other country. This is followed by Slovakia (53 percent) and Switzerland (40 percent). In comparison, Japan produces 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, against 20 percent in the USA and 18 percent in Russia.
Meanwhile, this data doesn’t take into account 60 more power stations currently under construction; to date, there are around 440 reactors operational worldwide. Moreover, as of March 2011, there is a plan to build 158 more power stations worldwide over the next twenty years. Plans have already been approved, with Poland, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Tunis, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Chile, Uruguay, Lithuania and Ukraine intending to construct reactors, alongside Belarus. The first Belarusian nuclear reactor is to be operational by 2017 and the second by 2018.
The process is being called a ‘nuclear Renaissance’, since the Chernobyl accident inspired freezing of so many projects. With prices for hydrocarbons, oil and gas hitting new highs, the world needs to focus on nuclear technology. We are ready to view nuclear power stations with fresh eyes.
World without dangers
The tragedy in Japan has raised new questions about energy safety, with governments debating security requirements; a revolution is likely in the branch.
We’re accustomed to associating the Land of the Rising Sun with technical wonders. However, the Fukushima power station, which has just celebrated its 40th anniversary, is out-of-date from a technological point of view. According to specialists, the American design was far from ‘contemporary’, even in those times.
Jean-Pierre Maulny, Deputy Director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations, notes that the Fukushima accident shouldn’t arouse debate on whether we need nuclear power; rather, we should think about security at nuclear power stations.
“Some countries bestow authorities with nationwide control over nuclear power security issues. Such bodies should be completely independent of political authorities and of industry, manufacturing equipment for nuclear power stations,” notes Mr. Maulny. “Moreover, a truly efficiently working international organisation is needed, which could set up security norms at nuclear power stations. It’s known that IAEA can give recommendations and offer critique but it is our national authorities which manage and control the nuclear industry.”
According to the French scientist, in the near future, the world will consume more gas and oil. The catastrophe on the Japanese islands will undoubtedly negatively affect the image of the nuclear industry but it won’t last long, as strict standards have been established regarding climatic changes, particularly, CO emissions into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, it’s as yet impossible to completely replace nuclear power with alternative energy sources; the cost of electricity would rise 5-fold. “We need to improve security at nuclear power stations and restore public trust in nuclear power,” asserts the French specialist. “At the same time, we need to develop alternative energy sources.”
At one of its recent meetings, the European Council approved Lithuania’s proposal to test the reliability of all nuclear power stations located within the EU and beyond. Naturally, President Lukashenko has long accentuated the need to ensure safety in constructing a nuclear power station in our country. “This is a very serious project. The security of our nuclear power station, situated at the centre of Europe, is our international responsibility, before our partners and neighbours.” Belarus is following all its obligations under international law relating to the construction and use of a nuclear power station, with a corresponding Presidential Decree already signed.
Lithuania recently questioned the chosen site, which is just 55km from Vilnius. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry even gave the Belarusian Ambassador a note reproaching statements of Belarusian officials that Lithuania ostensibly does not have any claims to the report on influence on the environment of the planned Belarusian nuclear power station. The note reads: ‘Belarus did not complete its work to assess the influence of the planned construction on the environment, in line with generally accepted international legal norms, and did not organise public hearings in Lithuania or bilateral consultations, as required by the Espoo Convention’. Belarus’ Deputy Energy Minister, Mikhail Mikhadyuk, insists that Minsk has responded to all Lithuanian questions regarding the construction of the nuclear power station and that Lithuania has been provided with all necessary materials and calculations relating to the future station.
Observers note that concerns in Lithuania began to intensify following its failure to find an investor for its own station. The closing of the Ignalina nuclear power plant without additional financial guarantees for building a new one was perhaps rather unwise. Jurgis Vilemas, a Lithuanian academician and specialist in power engineering, views the Belarusian project as the most promising in the region, even closer to implementation than Kaliningrad’s nuclear power plant. The Russians first need to agree where to sell their surplus electricity, since the needs of the region are modest.
The Lithuanian academician denies the assumption that Belarus has no experience of nuclear power. In Soviet times, Belarusian scientists constructed a mobile nuclear power station, designed for military purposes. However, after the Chernobyl catastrophe, the army decided against its use. Mr. Vilemas highlights the fact that Lithuania plans to construct its new nuclear power plant, alongside sites for burial of its waste, along its border with Belarus, on Lake DrūkЁiai. One third of its banks belong to Belarus. Accordingly, references to the proximity of the Belarusian nuclear power station to the Lithuanian border are groundless.
New approach replaces old
One way to solve the nuclear security issue worldwide is to replace old reactors with new ones as soon as possible, as notes Dmitry Medvedev in his blog. The Russian President believes that ‘it’s necessary to create new stations, rather than extending the life of existing ones’. Fukushima can teach us that we need to move to modern reactors, retiring those of previous generations.
Speaking of nuclear power stations currently being constructed by Russia, Vladimir Putin notes, “These are equipped with protection which excludes any chance of a Japanese scenario. Such systems, called passive, work even when the external electricity supply is lost and without human participation.” The reactor in Japan suffered a meltdown, as its electricity was disconnected and water stopped flowing around the reactor to cool it.
The Russian Prime Minister raised the question on the security of new stations during his visit to Minsk on March 15th. That day hosted an important round of negotiations regarding the Union State and the Customs Union while the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power station remained a major issue for bilateral relations, discussed during the meeting.
According to Mr. Mikhadyuk, the intergovernmental co-operative agreement, signed in Minsk, is a conceptual document, ‘which provides the legislative basis for signing a contract to implement this project’. Russia is to give Belarus a $6bln state loan for the construction, with details regarding the obligations of both sides stipulated in the contract to be signed very soon.
“We should understand that Belarus needs a nuclear power station, even in the light of events in Japan,” notes the Belarusian Deputy Minister. “It will be a whole new stage in the country’s development, with completely new technologies arriving in Belarus.” Since our state lacks its own energy resources, there is no alternative. Unsurprisingly, against the background of the Japanese earthquake, there has been much criticism regarding Belarus’ decision to construct its own nuclear power plant. “There has been criticism, but no concrete proposals as to how we can do without a nuclear power station,” asserts Mr. Mikhadyuk.
He stresses that we can’t compare the construction of a new nuclear power station with that destroyed in Japan following the tsunami and earthquake. “Ours will be of an absolutely new generation,” he emphasises. “The old power station was like a 30 year old Mercedes, with completely different security and efficiency,” he notes. “Of course, we can learn from this Japanese experience.” Russian specialists are now studying the best technical solutions for the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power station.
The Deputy Minister also tells us that Ostrovets site has been chosen with good reason, and has been inspected by the IAEA special mission. “It most suits the construction, compared to other sites,” notes Mr. Mikhadyuk. Mistakes are not allowable, since the station will run for 100 years.
Of course, no one can give absolute security guarantees but the degree of protection at the Belarusian nuclear power plant will be maximum.
By Igor Kolchenko