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 Central Europe urged to embrace nuclear

DAVID JUDSON

ENERGY: 'We must use nuclear energy,' Viktor Orban, a parliamentarian and former prime minister of Hungary, told the conference, emphasizing as well the importance of gas pipelines such as the planned $7 billion Nabucco that would transit Turkey and deliver roughly a third of EU needs. Bloomberg photo

ENERGY: 'We must use nuclear energy,' Viktor Orban, a parliamentarian and former prime minister of Hungary, told the conference, emphasizing as well the importance of gas pipelines such as the planned $7 billion Nabucco that would transit Turkey and deliver roughly a third of EU needs. Bloomberg photo

Leaders of Central European nations who gathered for a regional energy conference here Monday offered a rare bit of consensus in Europe’s raging energy and environmental debates: They want to go big in nuclear power and by and large, they want to do it alone.

“Without nuclear energy, our freedom is at stake,” Mirek Topolanek, the former Czech prime minister, told delegates from academia and the private sector at the 4th Energy Forum, set to discuss regional energy cooperation.

Topolanek, reflecting public frustration with Russian-Ukrainian gas transport skirmishes that left many residents of Central European countries cold both in 2006 and last winter, cast much of his speech in comments wary of Russia and its virtual monopoly on gas to Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland. He quoted Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov who 30 years ago argued the only savior from dominance by Moscow is energy independence through nuclear power.

“We have done nothing to diversify,” Topolanek said, offering harsh words for the European Union, which he said has abandoned energy policy in favor of environmental rhetoric. “We have to diversify. It is a condition for keeping sovereignty.”

Viktor Orban, a parliamentarian and former prime minister of Hungary, offered a similar assessment. He said the EU has created a “stealth energy policy” by subverting it to environmental goals and offers “much words and very little deeds.”

“We must use nuclear energy,” Orban told the conference, emphasizing as well the importance of gas pipelines such as the planned $7 billion Nabucco that would transit Turkey and deliver up to 31 billion cubic meters a year. Nabucco would meet roughly a third of EU needs, but the sources of the gas in the Middle East and Central Asia are yet to be fully identified. “We have to find alternative routes of supply.”

Central European nations already rely heavily on nuclear power. Hungary has one Soviet-era nuclear reactor providing a third of its needs and the Czech Republic has three, providing perhaps half of its energy. The Czech Republic also has domestic sources of uranium.

The calls by both politicians for unilateral nuclear moves stood in contrast to the stated goals of the conference and the policy recipes of many business and civil society leaders who called both for greater regional cooperation and emphasis on new technologies to combat climate change.

Hans Larsen, director of Denmark’s National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy, offered a preview of ideas expected to be center stage at next month’s global climate change conference in Copenhagen. He argued for greater energy efficiency, cooperation around regional advantages such as ample solar energy in southern Europe and a paucity of it in the north. Larsen also called for schemes to make intelligent use of varying resources such as wind power. Denmark, he noted, has ample wind power that is not always available. Thus it provides its excess on windy days to hydropower-rich Norway and Sweden, which can then preserve water impounded behind dams. When the winds die down in Denmark, the Swedes and Norwegians open the turbines and energy consumers never experience a break in service, he said.

Much attention focused on the Nabucco project, backed by Turkey but potentially overshadowed by Russia’s “South Stream,” to which Turkey has offered its Black Sea continental shelf. Nabucco’s Austrian-based managing director Reinhard Mitschek insisted the pipeline would commence construction on schedule next year and be complete by 2014. But many participants questioned Nabucco’s feasibility if South Stream is constructed first.

One passionate advocate of Nabucco was Georgia’s Giorgi Vashakmadze, head of the London-based “White Stream” project, which envisions a pipeline under the Caspian Sea that could deliver Turkmenistan gas to Nabucco via Georgia. Caspian gas reserves, rivaling those of Russia and the Gulf, offer both the promise of European independence from Moscow and a low-polluting energy source to enable Europe to comply with climate change goals, he said.

“Concurrent development of White Stream is to offer viability to Nabucco,” Vashakmadze said.

Alexander Babakov, deputy chairman of Russia’s legislature the State Duma, offered a novel solution to the problem of pipeline dependency. He suggested rather than seeking pipelines that snake around sovereign borders, an alternative might be pipelines under multiple sovereigns. “Pipelines under the territorial control of Ukraine could be controlled by international consortia,” Babakov said.

Conflict over dam

Last week, Russian media reported that Tajikistan diplomats in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, begun a fundraising to purchase shares of the Rogunskaja hydropower plant. This information represents and focuses on the most important political, economic, energy, environmental and social problems of Central Asia countries, as well as partly of Russia.

The Rogunskaja hydropower plant, built on the Vakhsh River, is one of the biggest and most controversial  hydroelectric projects in the world. The dam, built as  a stone embankment of 335 metres height, will be 150 meters higher than the famous Chinese Three Gorges Dam, even if the process of designing of the power plant (3600 MW) and its average yield (13.1 billion kWh), will be five times smaller than the Chinese giant.

The Dam represents a powerful container of water  (with an area of about  13 km ²), which will be used not only for energy purposes, but also for  water irrigation objectives. The construction costs are about $ 2.2 billion, and, according to other estimates, it may reach 3 billion USD (the Chinese Three Gorges Dam is expected to cost $ 30 billion). The construction was already started in 1976, but then suspended after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1993 an already constructed part of the dam was destroyed by the flood, which flowed the 45-meter embankment and gradually rinsed it.

The project has provoked so many  emotions from the very beginning,  hidden during the Soviet Union period. The criticism about this idea concerns  the risk associated with the high level of seismology of the site, its vulnerability to landslides and the snow-stone avalanches possibilities. In 1911, after  an earthquake in another part of Tajikistan, a natural and huge dam was created and the big  lake Sarez arised. The lake accumulated for nearly 100 years a giant amount of water which now, in the event of a major earthquake or of the collapse of the slopes surrounding mountains, could lead to a catastrophe which may threatens the whole  Central Asia. Additionally, critics of the projects have also noted that at the base of the dam there  a tectonic trench.

Nowadays, Uzbekistan is against the project,  mainly because of the expected  concentration  of  water from the summits and slopes of the Pamir and Alajski Mountains. The Vakhsh River waters meet the Panj River situated close to the Tajik-Afghan, and they generate the Amu Darya, the major river of Uzbekistan and one of the most important  rivers of Central Asia,  which flows into the Aral Sea.

On the Tajik section of the Vakhsh River  a chain of nine artificial lakes barrage has been already created. This system produces 90% of the hydropower electricity of Tajikistan, whose annual production is around 17 billion kWh, even if, according to specialists, the  installed capacity can double this level. However, it is not enough to ensure the energy security of such a  poor, weakly industrialized and not prosperous enough in natural resources country like Tajikistan, a mountain state that has the ambition to become an energy exporter, and perhaps to strengthen his political position towards its neighbours by controlling the water valves.

After so many years of attempts to solve the problem of the construction completion, in 2004 the government in Dushanbe has signed  a contract with the Russian company "Rusal", which has financed  the development of the technical-economic justifications of the project and the implementation of the repairing-building works. This caused a considerable cooling of relations between Uzbekistan and Russia in the economic as well as a  political convergence between  Tashkent and Washington.

However, because of non resolved controversies with  Rusal, in 2007,  Tajikistan renounced from the agreement. Officially, Rusal opposed to the continuation of the project because of  economic (like the lack of credit guarantees from Western banks for risky projects) and technical reasons (lack of consent of Dushanbe on a compromise solution for Uzbekistan, which foresees the construction of irrigation reservoirs, providing water for agricultural purposes for its neighbors), and informally it was said it had took into consideration the technical expertise of the project made by a German company, "Lahmeyer International," and suggested other parameters of height and type of the dam. Perhaps, it has also been  surrendered to the Kremlin's policy suggestions. The Rusal's  decision led to a political conflict between Russia and Tajikistan.

The construction of the dam was resumed in 2008 by using own resources, and this decision led to  unofficial criticism by EU institutions. After some discussions,  the European  Parliament sent a clear message to Dushanbe. If  the authorities of Tajikistan will continue to build using  their own resources, the EU will reduce the amount of humanitarian aid. As a consequence, in the second half of 2009 (the dam was supposed to be completed within December, 2009), there was a lack of funds for the project…

Meanwhile, Russia, taking care of  its position in the region, resigned  from participating  in the construction of hydropower plants in Central Asia, "until the neighbouring countries won't give  the official  permission" as President Dmitry Medvedev said during his visit to Tashkent in January 2009.  This represented a clear Russian  response to Uzbekistan, whose regional and global role increases according to the establishment of a northern corridor for supply procurement for coalition forces in Afghanistan. This decision not only regarded the  Rogunskaja project, but also other three hydropower plants located in  the interior rivers of Tajikistan, including Sangtudinska Power Water-2, also situated on the Vakhsh River. It is worth noting that the construction of Sangtudinska EW-1 has been completed recently with the participation of Russia and Iran; Sangtudinska EW-2 will be built by Iran, consequently becoming a property of the Iranian state. After putting SEW-1 for use, Uzbekistan left the United Energy System of Central Asia, and accused  Tajikistan of not respecting  agreements concerning  energy supplies (but in reality linked to the quantity).

Taking into considerations the  growing international difficulties and the lack of funding, the Tajikistan President,  Emomali Rachmon,  asked  citizens to buy shares of the  Rogunskaja Hydropower Plant, in order to obtain $ 600 million out of the minimum of 800 million needed for the installation of the first power units. Media stated that the Tajik president forced each family to buy shares for the amount of $ 700 (the average salary in Tajikistan is 60 U.S. dollars). A national campaign was launched for the sale of shares, giving to it the highest priority. Diplomats in Tashkent gave the example to their compatriots, as well as they made a significant gesture towards their country, Uzbekistan. Indeed, authorities in that country continue to protest against the construction of the dam.

Tajikistan, after the launching of the run power plants, will not become a country flowing with milk and honey, but maybe will be able to sell part of its electricity especially to Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. Here, it  collides with the competition from Uzbekistan. It will also be provided of a huge mass of fresh, clean water, which is nowadays  missing for agriculture purposes and for the  Aral Sea reservoir . It will become a very more important player in the Central Asian chessboard.

Władysław Sokołowski

 

The future of nuclear energy in Germany

After a short break in the political debates regarding the new tax code, the situation of public finances, as well as the mission in Afghanistan on the front pages of the German newspapers comes back the question of the future of nuclear energy.

As early as in January, Ronald Pofalla, Minister in the Office of the Chancellor, is to meet with representatives of the four operators of nuclear power plants: EON, RWE, Vattenfall, EnBW. It is a signal that after a few political gambits something is starting actually happen in this matter. Perhaps the problem has become a priority of "the head" of the government.

The agreement of the current Christian Democratic CDU / CSU and liberal FDP coalition government  defines the use of nuclear power plants to supply energy in Germany as a bridging technology in the transition to the majority use of clean and renewable energy sources. In 2007, according to the German Energy Agency (DENA) the share of nuclear power plants in the electricity production was 22% while renewable sources provided 14%. Germany plans by the year 2019 that the energy derived from renewable sources will be 19% of supply. In 2050 Germany will reach full energy independence, based on renewable technologies.

Currently Germany has the atomic amendment to the Law from 2002, which is a record of the achievements of "red-green" government of Gerhard Schroeder in the mid-2000 when it succeeded in negotiating with energy corporations the "exit plan" from using nuclear energy. During the implementation of this ambitious project which is rooted in the ideology of the Greens, it was decided to apply the rule of the quota amount of energy to produce after 01/01/2000 (2.62 million GW – Federal Office for Radiation Protective reported that until the end of 2008 it was already used 1.24 million GW) The amendment didn't content a specific deadline. It is expected that the latest in 2022 the statutory maximum amount of time will elapse the last operation of the reactor (which for each is 32 years, when, for example in the Netherlands: 50). The owners of power plants may, however, freely dispose of this quota, before closing the older and less efficient power plants, so the actual date of withdrawal depends on corporations.

The majority of the actors of the energy market expected that the new government will meet very soon with the representatives of the owners of the 17 power plants and determine the conditions for renewal of their work, because just in this point is a unique coalition compliance of programs, which can not be said of other key topics. One of the conditions of the proposed extension is to provide half of the profits from further activity counted in billions of Euros in research and improvements of renewable energy technologies. On behalf of the government the case had to be addressed jointly by Norbert Röttgen, Environment Minister (CDU) and Rainer Brüderle, Minister of Economy (FDP). The last one wanted to settle the matter quickly in order to prepare projects and grants to support development of renewable energies. But the Minister for the Environment has estimated that until October 2010 he will develop a comprehensive idea of the energy strategy for Germany and there won t be earlier single declarations. Certainly he had in mind the good of the party in the forthcoming elections in the Land of North Rhine-Wesfallia. At the ministerial level, there was no intention of a better cooperation.

In an interview for Bild Zeitung, a few days before the December conference COP15 in Copenhagen, at the question whether the politicians will "tinker" with the law of the Schroder government, Minister Röttgen replied: "No, you can use nuclear energy in the long term only if the majority of people approves it". These words surprised a lot of people.

In the raised polemic, economic experts of its parent party, headed by a deputy and spokesman for economic affairs, Joachim Pfeiffer (known to the participants of the 4th Energy Forum in Budapest in 2009) and Hans Peter Friedrich (twin CSU) opposed, considering that this technology is currently the cheapest and therefore it must come to a labor renewal of nuclear power plants. The differences in vision shows the lack of unity of thought within the party and the gaps in the leadership role of Mrs. Chancellor, subject to recent criticism directed by her address. The economic daily Handelsblatt, citing Secretary-General of the CDU Hermann Gröhe interpreted it as an attempt to recruit new voters. CDU promotes the Environment Minister as a person with "green" views.

The chair of the Green Party faction Renate Künast – once co-founder of the amendment of the Law of 2002, which is now the opposition – in an interview with the "Leipziger Volkszeitung" does not believe in the attitude of the minister, and compares it to "the bad disguised wolf who is on the back-out for the Little Red Riding Hood."

Similarly speak the experts of civil movements opposed to nuclear power, accusing the government of a double play. In autumn, they plan protests and blocking of transport of radioactive waste in underground storage sites in Gorleben, Lower Saxony.

In the opinion of independent experts, the problem requires urgent solution. They fear that it won't be a fast start of talks, on which EnBW depends notably, as one of the reactors in Neckarwestheim in Swabia was finishing up his quota. Stephen Kohler with DENA, believes that the lack of negotiations will result in a chaos in the investment field, a lack of playing rules and development in the renewable energy sector, which may have a bad impact on the implementation of the objectives pursued the transformation of the energy mix.

In the remarks of Minister Röttgen for the "Bild Zeitung" is still one important element: the social acceptance of nuclear energy. Power generation by this technology is relatively cheap and does not cause greenhouse gas CO2. However, it is burdened by one major risk: disruption, disasters (eg. Chernobyl) diseases (leukemia), storage of waste material or terrorist threat. Although the German power plants are among the safest in the world, from time to time forced breaks happen. Since the 70s, it has been discussed and protested against the waste storages in Asse, Morsleben and Gorleben. The mentioned sarcophagus in Asse threatens to collapse and needs general repair. All of this means that nuclear energy has a low support in German society and raises sharp protests, and thus is treated by politicians with caution.

Piotr Mączka