BalticsEnergetics

Baltic: Nuclear Energy – The way out of Russian Gas

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has compelled many of the nation’s buying oil and gas from the country to rethink their energy supply prospects.

Russia has been seeking to leverage its quasi-monopoly on oil and gas supplies in most of Europe to serve strategic and political ends. It has sought to retain favour by threatening to staunch its fossil fuel flow in order to arm-twist its dependents into diplomatic compliance.

On 7th April, 93 countries including Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. After various blocks and sanctions were enacted by the three Baltic countries in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world’s largest country has threatened strong retaliation, including but not limited to gas supply restrictions.

Latvia and Lithuania derive roughly half of their electricity from natural gas and are, in general, heavily dependent on Russia for meeting their energy needs. 41% of Lithuania’s gas and 93% of Latvia’s gas is sourced from Russia, according to data from the European Union. Lithuania’s gas reliance on Russia halved in five years, the apportionment in 2015 being 78%, but it still has a long way to go in terms of achieving some semblance of energy diversification and independence.

Further, Latvia and Estonia are among the handful of countries still burning peat for energy. Peat is the least matured, lowest-grade form of coal. Comprising of partially decomposed plant matter, peat produces a high amount of carbon dioxide, compared to higher grades of coal and other fossil fuels. The carbon footprint of its usage is threefold – its extraction causes loss of carbon-fixing vegetation while also exposing the drained bogs to the atmosphere, rendering them as carbon sources, and its combustion adds a substantial amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

It is high time that the Baltic nations start looking at alternative sources of energy in order to develop even limited energy autonomy. Solar, Wind, and Hydroelectric are the three major options that come to mind.

According to data from the Global Solar Atlas, the Baltic countries have one of the lowest Solar irradiation values and hence one of the lowest solar energy potentials in the world.

According to country-wise factsheets from the Global Solar Atlas, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania rank 206, 203, and 202 in terms of Average Solar Potential, among 210 nations. It is no wonder that the region has not tinkered with Solar Energy. The poor solar potential primarily owes to their high-latitude location (far from the equator), moderately high cloud cover, high average humidity, and sizeable forest cover of the region.

Referring to the Global Wind Atlas, one can see that the Baltic region has a moderately-high wind energy potential in inland areas and a high potential at its coasts. Outputs from Wind Energy, however, just like those from Solar Energy, are very irregular, varying with short-term and long-term meteorological and geographical effects. Everything from natural factors as terrain to anthropogenic pollution can significantly affect the yield. The outputs vary with the passage of day and the passage of months, and are also subject to variation with each of the myriad facets of the temperament of the local weather. Idiosyncrasies of the atmosphere, everything from dust to humidity and clouds to gales can cause the energy efflux to considerably fluctuate. The lack of consistency in output across time and space often makes Wind and Solar Energy unreliable.

Hydroelectricity might seem to be an appreciable option for the region. However, the lack of sharp gradients, the pristine environment, and its enormous long-term demands make it unsuitable for the zone, at least in the contemporary scenario. Moreover, even if there is natural hydroelectric potential to be tapped into, such large-scale labor-intensive, area-intensive, and infrastructure-intensive projects as the construction of integrated multipurpose dams are reminiscent of the derelict Soviet legacy. Marked by excruciating stagnation, downright wasteful resource inefficiency, sluggish modernisation, and brutal indiscriminate labor enforcement, the construction of large hydropower projects is likely to exert untenable economic stress on the emerging economies of the small nations. Such top-down governmental secondary-sector undertakings belong to a bygone era of collectivism, being a qualitative and quantitative misfit to the modern liberal politico-economic context. At any rate, the long-term capacity building for hydroelectricity requires extensive effort and multidimensional resource devotion, rendering the form of energy inappropriate as a substitutive solution to the pressing challenge of fossil fuel dependency. 

Further, Hydel, Wind, and Solar Energy installations are likely to lead to deforestation and other adverse consequences for the rich ecosystems of the region, as these forms of energy generation require extensive devotion of land area. The large-scale installations also fragment habitats and affect migration, interaction, and gene flow routes of flora and fauna. Solar Energy can cause soil pollution due to chemical leaching while Hydel projects multifacetedly adversely affect aquatic life, in some cases collapsing entire ecosystems and permanently degrading entire areas of land.

Given that geothermal and tidal energy are not yet viable on a large-scale and best serve as supplementary sources of energy, the only contender that remains to be explored is nuclear. It is technology-intensive requiring minimal manpower, land, and quantitative infrastructure devotion as well as entails a comparatively very low maintenance and refueling frequency, making it a lean and clean source of energy. Modern nuclear facilities practically run-on autopilot post installation, owing to extensive standardisation and computational automation of operations, monitoring, regulation, and remediation. 

According to the US Government’s Department of Energy, nuclear energy has by far the highest capacity factor of all sources of energy, at a whopping 93%. On average, the nuclear energy sector operates at its maximum potential for 93% of the time, making it the most reliable form of energy. For comparison, Solar, Wind, and Natural Gas have capacity factors of 25%, 35%, and 56.6% respectively. The high-capacity factor of Nuclear Energy owes to its low required maintenance and refueling frequency.

The very mention of ‘Nuclear’ in the Eastern bloc spontaneously evokes the imagery of Chernobyl. The 1986 nuclear accident, by far the worst in the world, has pervaded the local and global subconscious and has led to any new proposals for nuclear-energy installations being met with strong skepticism and paranoia. The singular catastrophe whose health effects are still felt, perhaps left its most lasting imprint in the form of a lingering sense of unease with nuclear energy among the populace. It is no wonder that many in the region are apprehensive and mistrustful about the very consideration of nuclear energy as an option, let alone the sanction of nuclear installations and switching to it as the dominant form of energy. These tendencies cannot be dismissed as alarmist, given that the multifaceted scars of the 36-year-old disaster still linger in three countries. Reactionary apologism and convenient cherry picking of direct casualty counts (with ignorance of indirect long-term radiation dosage-caused deaths) by ideological defendants, lobbyists, and many nuclear-energy proponents haven’t helped, only serving to further the polar rift of the pro-anti divide over the sector. 

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Chernobyl disaster was a result of ignorance of safety measures and inconsiderate design. The World Nuclear Association concurs, adding the factor of operator blunders. Design deficiencies and violation of design and safety norms, standards, and regulations were together responsible for the incident. The institutionalised negligence, corruption, and indiscretion of the Soviet system is often held indirectly responsible for the catastrophe. Most of the critical factors funneling into the disaster could be attributed to lack of due procedure observation and stringent norm following and can be objectively eliminated through automation and strict enforcement of standardisation of structures and procedures. We have come a long way since Chernobyl, both technologically and geopolitically. Reactor designers have taken lessons from the disaster, both for structures as well as methods, in order to make modern-day reactors fool-proof.

The Chernobyl disaster exposed the perils of an indiscriminate top-down governance apparatus – a bird’s-eye-view administrative system. The disaster was a convergence of multiple avoidable risk factors ranging from planning to compliance in both structure and function. Such shortcomings have since then been virtually overcome in modern design and operation practices. The incident has been extensively analysed by researchers and policymakers across boundaries of discipline and geography, and taken valuable takeaways from. Modern nuclear facilities supervised by advanced and integrated computing systems, some even aided by Machine Learning, are quite unlike their rudimentary manual electromechanical predecessors. Like most contemporary power generation systems, today’s nuclear power plants are highly automated with multiple layers of digital fail safes in place, largely bypassing the dependence on (and hence sensitivity to) human operational vigilance. The vagaries and vagrancies of human nature – the whims, idiosyncrasies, and vulnerabilities of individual behavior have been eliminated by intelligent automation through indefatigable and infallible integrated smart systems. Some of these systems will likely be upgraded with self-learning, self-adjusting adaptive algorithms. An overlap of multiple critical formulation flaws and operational negligences as the one that led to the Chernobyl accident is thus practically out of question in the contemporary context. While Chernobyl was a result of gross human negligence in design and operation, the other major nuclear accident in the world – the 2011 Fukushima accident was triggered by a natural disaster i.e. the 2011 Tohoku earthquake-tsunami that devastated Japan. Unlike the seismic activity-prone archipelago, the Baltic region is one of the lowest natural disaster-risk areas in the world and hence the possibility of a natural calamity-induced nuclear accident is a scarce concern. 

Data shows that the Baltic states, along with Poland & Belarus, are outliers in terms of nuclear energy adoption, Europe being the most extensively nuclear-energy powered continent. Belgium, Ukraine, and Slovakia source over half of their electricity from nuclear while France derives well over two-thirds. The three Baltic nations, and in particular Lithuania and Latvia must thus seriously consider the atomic route to energy autonomy, taking the first step of liberating themselves from the large-looming shadow of their bygone Soviet legacy. Freeing their collective subconscious of the deep-seeped Chernobyl scare is a prerequisite for the same. This can be achieved through a rationally firm self-confident belief in methodical technological development, identity consciousness, and diligent self-owned progress. Nuclear Energy could be the Baltic states’ move of self-confidence enabling them to step out of their exploitative communist past and highlight the stark contrast between the inconsiderate and dilapidated Soviet regime and the modern, progressive liberal democratic form of government of the current republics, accomplishing something that the USSR failed to do – securing a safe and sufficient source of energy in nuclear power. Successfully harnessing nuclear potential would not only enable the Baltic nations to claim energy independence but also assert their ideological independence and freedom from their past by demonstrating their commitment towards a novel, better future.

Pitamber Kaushik
I’m a journalist, columnist, writer and researcher, having previously written in over 40 national and international outlets in 15 countries.

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