The final report pf Estonia’s Working Group on Nuclear Energy has concluded that the introduction of nuclear energy would support the achievement of climate objectives, security of supply and stability of the energy system.

Over the past two and a half years the National Nuclear Energy Working Group analysed the potential of small modular reactors (SMRs) in line with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Milestones Approach for the development of national nuclear infrastructure, which lists 19 important steps for the introduction of nuclear energy.

The 164-page report – Opportunities for the Deployment of Nuclear Energy in Estonia (Tuumaenergia Kasutuselevotmise Voimalused Eestis) said nuclear energy would provide additional support to renewable energy. The Working Party considers that, provided there is timely planning, adequate funding, political and public support, the introduction of nuclear energy in Estonia will be achieved.

According to Antti Tooming, Undersecretary of the Nuclear Energy Working Group, Undersecretary-General of the Ministry of Climate, nuclear energy has proven itself in many countries around the world. “Other energy has the potential to ensure a stable energy supply in Estonia for future generations.” He added that interest in the introduction of nuclear energy, especially SMRs, is currently experiencing major growth around the world. He emphasised that any country that decides in favour of nuclear energy, must not undermine the expansion of renewable energy or delay emission reduction policies. The report notes: “In conclusion, it is important to ensure that the introduction of nuclear energy does not undermine the increase in renewable energy production and storage capacities and does not lead to a delay in reducing emissions.”

The deployment of nuclear energy can make a significant contribution to achieving Estonia's climate goals, ensuring security of supply and stability of the energy system, without limiting the development of renewable energy.

Introducing nuclear energy into a country without previous experience requires years of preparation and the start of power generation from a nuclear power plant would take 9-11 years, the report noted. It will require preparation of a legal framework, the development of competences and site selection as the next steps.

A new public authority must be set up to regulate the safety of nuclear energy, employing a total of about 80 people during operation of the plant. In addition to the existing staff of the Climate & Radiation Department of the Environment Agency, which will be merged into the new body, more than 60 new staff, including 20 specialists in the field of nuclear energy, should be hired, some from abroad for at least the first years.

Assuming NPP construction is financed by the private sector and that the role of the state is to establish a framework for nuclear energy use, from implementation of the nuclear programme to the start of electricity production a total of €73m ($79m) would be needed for the 9-11 year period. A further €54m would be needed over 10 years to support the necessary emergency services and facilities required for nuclear plants.

The report said the introduction of nuclear energy would generate additional revenue in the form of higher tax revenues and the revitalisation of economic activity. This would exceed the cost of establishing and maintaining a national framework during in the plant construction phase. SMRs with a capacity of less than 400 MWe would be suitable in Estonia and the choice of technology should be based on follow experience and fuel supply.

“Although the nuclear power plant plans take into account up to 1200 MW or up to four reactors, the small size of the Baltic Electricity Market, National Renewable Energy and security of supply targets and European carbon-free in view of the likely development of the market for hydrogen products, three or four are envisaged…[if] the reactor is being built on the hydrogen products market instead of electricity generation.”

In the first months of 2024, the Government and Council of the Republic will discuss the possible launch of a nuclear programme. Estonia plans to phase out domestic oil shale by 2035. A draft report by the working group issued in 2022 estimated Estonia could get its first nuclear power plant by 2035. “The long-term sustainability of Estonian oil shale power plants (2035+ view) is declining, as a large part of the plants are old and have less and less competitiveness in the electricity market due to high carbon emissions,” the report notes. “To a certain extent, gas stations are certainly supporting the Estonian electricity system and necessary for Estonia, primarily for providing fast frequency reserves. However, if we talk about covering the base load on a large scale, then a nuclear power plant is potentially the most advantageous solution in terms of electricity price.”

In February 2023, Estonia's privately held nuclear energy company, Fermi Energia, selected GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy's (GEH's) BWRX-300 SMR) for deployment in Estonia by the early 2030s. In 2022 Fermi Energia had accepted tenders from US-Japan joint venture GE Hitachi, US-based NuScale and the UK’s Rolls-Royce. Fermi Energia said the criteria for selection were technological maturity, establishment of a reference plant, economic competitiveness, and participation of Estonian companies in the supply chain.

In April 2023, four potential locations across Estonia, which could accommodate a NPP were identified by a Finance Ministry analysis. The four locations are at Toila, Ida-Viru County, Kunda, Lääne-Viru County, Loksa, Harju County and Varbla, Pärnu County. The analysis was in effect a feasibility study on whether a nuclear plant would be viable anywhere in Estonia, with the conclusion being that it would be. The analysis was conducted by infrastructure consultancy firm Skepast & Puhkim, whose representative, Triin Lepland, told a press conference that any site selection would take place in stages.

In November 2023, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) concluded that Estonia had developed a comprehensive assessment of its nuclear power infrastructure needs to enable the government to decide whether to launch a nuclear power programme.

Image: Antti Tooming, head of the working group (courtesy of Kliimanisteerium)