More Reason for the Balkan States to Consider Nuclear

Downtown Belgrade, Serbia. Ink and marker drawing by the author.

If you follow energy politics in Eastern Europe, which I do since my main job is as a journalist covering this region and at that, this specific topic, you'll have great cause for concern right now. For quite some time, Serbia and other nations (but especially Serbia) had placed their bets on the South Stream Pipeline, a massive natural gas transfer pipeline being built by Russia to bring natural gas in from the Russian petro-chem giant, Gazprom. This pipeline would have served the main of Eastern Europe with much-needed natural gas for energy and heating applications, but yesterday (1 December) on a state visit to Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was withdrawing all Russian support from the project altogether and refocusing Russia's partnerships for natural gas sales to Turkey and perhaps elsewhere. He was doing so because of the international sanctions imposed on Russia in protest of Russia's involvement in Ukraine. in addition, South Stream has been plagued with other administrative and legal woes due to the diversity in regulatory approaches between Russia and the European Union. Some would say Putin, known to be stubborn (to put it nicely), has held the project hostage on numerous occasions in order to try to twist the arm of Eastern European nations to align themselves with Russia's views. Some might even go as far as to contend that Putin and Gazprom never were as serious about the project as they claimed while others will argue the amount of research, design, and investment given over to South Stream demonstrated a high level of confidence—at least at one point—in the project. 

So this is huge news in Serbia, a nation that would have seen the South Stream run south to north right through its heartland. Most Serbian politicians and business leaders were excited for the pipeline: Serbia needs the jobs and money it would have brought, and it needs the gas, too, as do its neighbor nations. However, some in the Serbian government have said for several years (at least behind closed doors according to journalists I know in Belgrade), that worry existed over whether Russia would make good on its South Stream promises and, even if it did, there was still the issue that Russia could always close the valve on the pipeline at will. Serbia, once part of Yugoslavia and very aware of how the Soviets and now the Russians like to play their cards, saw South Stream as a viable and exciting project, but one that still would place too much control over Serbian energy into Russian hands. Now that South Stream is suddenly no more, Serbia really has to reconsider its options. If anything, South Stream has made the entire nation very aware that Serbia is not independent in energy production and even worse, another nation can easily turn Serbia's energy situation upside down with a few comments from its president as happened with Putin's remarks in Turkey. 

Serbia has long avoided nuclear power. The nation suffered a criticality accident at the Vinča Institute of Nuclear Sciences in 1958 which ended up with the death of one worker from radiation poisoning and five other workers becoming quite ill due to the same. Ten years later, the nuclear research program was suspended though the two USSR-built research reactors were not shut down until 1984. For Vinča, certainly the accident was a horrible and tragic event. However one person dying from an industrial accident is rarely enough to shut down any industry for decades, yet this is what happened in essence in Serbia. Vinča is near Belgrade, the nation's largest city and despite this being communist times, the 1958 accident became widely known—a situation the USSR noted and possibly much of the reason the Russians would be tight-lipped to the point of lying outright about their many nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons program accidents, nuclear power accidents, and even general industrial accidents during the Cold War. The fact that the reactor involved was made by the USSR caused further Yugoslav distrust of Soviet equipment and the Soviets in general. The Vinča Institute incident became a focal point in Yugoslavia and later Serbia for Serbian opposition to nuclear power, a feeling that on a popular level spread to Croatia and elsewhere in the Yugo-realm, despite Croatia later establishing partial ownership of a nuclear power plant (the Krško Nuclear Power Plant). I don't think we can overstate the importance of this opposition: Would a plane crash have caused a nation to suspend air travel forever, or even for a year? Would any other industry that suffered an accident which affected six people, with one dying from it, cause the essential end of that industry in that nation? The public was never in danger, despite Vinča's location near Belgrade; as with all research reactor facilities, the immediate and long-term danger was extant only in a very confined area and, in the long-term, was able to be negated. Despite all of this, one accident and the social response to it ended further nuclear industry development in Serbia. 

Quite often these days, given the need for energy and the uneasy situation with Russia, the issue of nuclear power arises in Serbia. Government officials will say they've commissioned studies and those studies prove the potential for nuclear to be high while business leaders will admit nuclear seems more viable—a home-grown, home-controlled, energy industry—than oil, gas, or any other alternative. However, Zorana Mihajlović, at the time the Serbian Minister of Environment, Development, and Energy stated at a press conference in 2013 that nuclear was "out of the question" in Serbia, citing the environmental factors, cost of construction, and lack of native expertise. Let's look at her claim though point-by-point:

1) Environmental factors: I don't think I need to explain to anyone reading this blog the true safety of properly-operated nuclear power facilities and the ability of nuclear plants to be good stewards of the natural environment, especially in contrast to the impact of fossil fuel-burning plants. Dr. Mihajlović I feel raised this point because it simply is a popular association with nuclear: All she had to do as a state official was say "this would be bad for the environment" and people would nod their heads and agree. She should know better, but it was an easy way to excuse away any real introspection on the issue of nuclear power.

2) Too expensive: Again, most people reading this blog will know better than the Mihajlović claim of nuclear being too costly. The initial outlay of cost would be high, but it's a small price to pay for a form of energy that would be 100% in Serbian control. In contrast, even if South Stream had gone through and opened for business, who is to say that Russia—for whatever political or economic or imaginary reason—might not shut off the flow on a whim? Nuclear would mean, once the plant was operational, there would be little need for outside, foreign, support. What is more, other nations that are still developing their economies, such as Vietnam, have opted to go with nuclear power. Nuclear is not too expensive for such nations.

3) Serbia lacks the expertise to build a nuclear plant. Perhaps, but Russia has increasingly become a major exporter of nuclear power core technologies and expertise alike via Rosatom. If Serbia is still sour on the idea of using Russian tech, why not America? Why not France? There are ample companies that would love to have such a project in Serbia. The design expertise could be foreign, and on-site operational expertise could be Serbian and trained via foreign consultants so that these professionals would be in place and able to operate the plant by the time it actually opened. 

I was disappointed in Dr. Mihajlović's view of nuclear. From colleagues in the Serbian press, I've heard mostly good about her, above all that she's very intelligent and well-versed in Western views and economic practices. Yet for whatever reasons, she turned her back on nuclear. Yes, she had studies to consult and supposedly expert advice, but in the end she parroted the lines we've heard from people in her office for decades in Serbia, which in essence is that Serbia cannot afford the cost nor risk of nuclear. Not now, not ever. Very discouraging. 

It's hard to see how politicians can hold such views: if you're in Europe, you have ample examples of very safe, successful, nuclear power operations—some which have had perfectly safe track records now for decades. This is not an unknown: in 1958, there were things we did not really know, but those questions are now answered and we know better than ever how safe nuclear is, plus, we have the safest reactor and control systems technologies ever designed for nuclear now. Due to government reforms recently, Mihajlović is now Deputy Prime Minister and Aleksandar Antić is now the minister over Energy, which has been reformed to include Mining in the portfolio and to move the environmental and developmental concerns to other ministers (construction and infrastructure, though, actually now fall to Mihajlović, so she's not out of the picture on something like a nuclear power plant in the least). Aleksandar Antić seems more progressive and was previously Minister of Transport prior to the reforms of cabinet positions, so he knows a thing or two about technology-based issues in governmental planning. I can only hope that the inclusion of mining in his portfolio may consolidate energy/tech-oriented expertise into his domain a bit and there will be people on his staff willing to look at the nuclear issue anew. Part of the problem is that since Serbia has for decades avoided nuclear, it probably really doesn't have—aside from some academic physicists possibly—enough home-grown expertise to even look at the prospect of nuclear in a pragmatic, educated, manner. If necessary, an external study should be commissioned using European nuclear experts—people with direct experience bringing plants into construction and operation, and we know such professionals are out there. 

Serbia is a small nation most Americans probably don't think of often, if at all, unless they have some family tie to it or other direct interest. However, if we can get a nuclear power plant built in Serbia, the world will see a major energy problem solved via nuclear and they'll see nuclear as a successful option for a smaller country to take control of its own fate when it comes to energy. So therefore, the Serbian situation needs to be watched with care, as should other nations in this region that has been left out in the cold without the natural gas supply they were (perhaps foolishly) expecting for about seven years. I can only hope they won't make the same mistake again and place too much trust in Russia—or anyone else—when there is a solution for their energy problems in nuclear.