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At the initiative of the Environment Committee, the Riigikogu discussed “The need and opportunities to adopt nuclear energy in Estonia” as a matter of significant national importance. Presentations were made by the Chairman of the Environment Committee Igor Taro, Head of Radiation and Nuclear Safety of the Ministry of Climate Reelika Runnel, Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute Tallinn Centre Lauri Tammiste, and Adviser of the Ministry of the Interior Aigo Allmäe.

The Chairman of the Environment Committee Igor Taro called his presentation the first step in a debate on introducing nuclear energy. This topic should find an expression in a Bill that is to be drafted in a few weeks’ time by members of the Riigikogu. “This discussion on the introduction of nuclear energy is not simply a question of the long-term plan of Estonia’s energy industry or economy. It largely concerns the environment and climate impacts and how we respect our commitments in shifting to climate neutral economy, all the while promoting the increased wellbeing of our people. As we concluded in an earlier discussion of energy in the Riigikogu, it would be impossible to increase social wellbeing without increased energy production,” he said.

Taro also pointed out the results of the nuclear energy life cycle analysis, which show that even when the environmental impact of the whole process is taken into account, its carbon footprint remains in the same range as that of low-emission solar and wind energy. The emission impacts of other alternatives that are based on fossil or biofuels exceed it by dozens of times. “Indeed, nuclear energy comes with its own set of challenges, the most serious of which is the final disposal of nuclear waste and the security risks that the next presenters will talk about. Many of these challenges can be solved during the development of nuclear energy framework. The Chairman sees it as a task of the Riigikogu to set out the minimal environmental and safety standards that every nuclear project developer should be required to respect. It is also up to the Riigikogu to decide how much we are willing to contribute financially to ensuring the option of rapidly implementing an additional emissions free energy production approach in 10-, 15-, or 20-years’ time. 

“The cost of all this is definitely a relevant question; however, it would be even more important to ask ourselves today how much excluding of this option would cost to Estonia’s economy and society in the long run. Historically, nuclear energy has prevented more than 1.8 million premature deaths from excessive air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In mid-century perspective, this emissions-free energy generation solution might save another 500,000 to 7 million lives if we give up fossil fuels,” he stated, emphasising that the point of the debate could thus be the focus on the long-term plan in light of environmental and climate goals.

The Head of Radiation and Nuclear Safety of the Ministry of Climate Reelika Runnel was the second to speak. She presented the final report of the Nuclear Energy Working Group “Possibilities for the Implementation of Nuclear Energy in Estonia”. Runnel outlined the drafting of the analysis. The whole material input for the analysis was assessed during an expert mission of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “The mission checked whether we have the necessary grasp on all the commitments that come with the use of nuclear energy and whether we have given full consideration to all the topics linked to using this source of energy. The experts concluded that the analyses of the Working Group and the preparations for implementing nuclear energy have been thorough and sufficient to allow us to make a conscious decision on using this source of energy,” she said.

At the end of last year, the Working Group finally reached a conclusion that it was possible to implement nuclear energy in Estonia if the planning was timely, the funding sufficient, and there was support from the policies and the general public. “Implementing nuclear energy would support our objectives in ensuring climate goals and supply security, provide stable power generation, promote research and development, bring economic gain, and create jobs for locals,” she explained.

“We need to remember that in a country which has not used this energy source before, implementing nuclear energy requires fundamental preparation and it would take at least a decade before a nuclear power plant would be up and running,” Runnel stressed. The first reactors that would be more or less feasible in Estonia would be built in the West by the end of this decade; technologically speaking, these would be smaller versions of water-cooled reactors, i.e. a technology that has been tried and tested around the world during the past 70 years.

Runnel also highlighted the key problem in discussions on the use of nuclear energy—namely the concerns around nuclear waste, which has produced a multitude of indelible myths and false perceptions in the public consciousness. One such is that the use of nuclear energy produces huge amounts of nuclear waste, a problem which supposedly has not been solved. “The study commissioned by the Working Group showed that a small reactor would generate around 12 tonnes of nuclear fuel a year. Over the lifecycle of the reactor, which is at least 60 years, 720 tonnes of fuel would be generated per reactor and this would be stored in an interim disposal site on the territory of the plant. “As a comparison, the total waste generated in Estonia in a year is 23 million tonnes. This includes 1.6 million tonnes of hazardous waste.” 96 percent of nuclear fuel can be recycled and recovered, and there are also numerous options for waste treatment and final disposal. Support for nuclear energy has remained at close to 60 percent.

The third presentation was by the Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute Tallinn Centre Lauri Tammiste, who spoke about the role of nuclear energy in achieving climate neutral power generation in Estonia by year 2050. Tammiste started with a caveat that his presentation was based on the 2022 study, which was in dire need of updating. “The key message gleaned from that modelling was that the future production portfolio needs to be diverse. We cannot decide to only do wind, or only do sun, or only do nuclear, or only do biogas. In real life, we need a highly diversified generation portfolio,” he stressed as a corner stone of climate neutrality. Tammiste explained that only two models out of the eight dealt with nuclear power stations, and that it was important to remember that in the only functioning nuclear energy scenario the station itself made up nearly one quarter of the whole generation portfolio. “It must still be supported by wind, sun, and other technologies,” he said. 

“As the report of the Nuclear Energy Working Group said, nuclear energy should in no way negatively affect the implementation of renewable sources in Estonia. This means that we need to carry out what we already have the technology for, what is ripe for use—such as wind, sun, consumption management, storage,” Tammiste emphasised.

Adviser of the Ministry of the Interior Aigo Allmäe explained the fundamental principles of nuclear security and highlighted how important it was for Estonia that the responsibility of the state remained inalienable and that the ensuring of security was our priority. “Although some nuclear security functions are fulfilled by the operator or the nuclear facility, the regime for this is put in place and checked by the state through competent authorities. The future nuclear power station operator must draft a physical security plan as part of its licence application. This must be based on risk assessments or modelled threats, also contain project blueprints, description of the assessment, implementation, and maintenance of the physical protection system, and emergency plans,” he explained.

The national nuclear security regime must ensure that the competent authorities and authorised persons are ready to respond to nuclear security events at the local, national, as well as international level. “Readiness needs additional development as well as closer cooperation. For the benefit of the future, we need to contribute to evacuation organisation capacity, the details of which can be clarified in the next stages, based on the safety analysis. We also need to enhance the existing radiation monitoring capacity and tailor the current programme more specifically for nuclear power, as well as increase lab capability and general crisis management competence. The responding authorities need to procure personal protective equipment. In healthcare, we need to equip hospitals with specialist competence, as well as with a variety of medical devices and pharmaceuticals. To increase the rescue capability, we need to develop the comprehensive concept of decontamination capability. We need to increase the radiation awareness of the authorities involved in intervention and to ensure the readiness of first responders to act during possible incidents. And as the programme continues, investments into knowledge are key,” he concluded.

During the debate, Yoko Alender (Reform Party), Aivar Kokk (Isamaa), Rain Epler (Estonian Conservative People’s Party), Priit Lomp (Social Democratic Party), Liisa Pakosta (Estonia 200), Mario Kadastik (Reform Party), Anti Poolamets (Estonian Conservative People’s Party), and Martin Helme (Estonian Conservative People’s Party) took the floor.

Verbatim record of the sitting (in Estonian)

Photos (Author: (Erik Peinar / Chancellery of the Riigikogu)

Video recording will be available to watch later on the Riigikogu YouTube channel.

Riigikogu Press Service
Maris Meiessaar
+372 631 6353, +372 5558 3993
[email protected]
Questions: [email protected]