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The prospect of further gas shortages from Russia suggests to Vladimir Urutchev that the EU should review its nuclear plant closure agreements with Bulgaria, Slovakia and Lithuania

 PARLIAMENTMAGAZINE  02.03.2009

In January this year, when Vladimir Putin invited the head of Gazprom into his office to tell him to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, the TV cameras were there to signal to the world the power of gas diplomacy. The world’s media told us every day that this was not a commercial dispute; it was a political one – just like January 2006. Well my long years as an engineer in the energy sector got me thinking: Why January again? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that gas demand hits a peak in January and gas supply problems are tougher to fix especially in the frozen and fast depleting Siberian gas fields where most of Russia’s exported gas derives. Could it be that Gazprom simply could not supply enough gas to Ukraine and the EU? I found support for my theory in a recent article by professor Alan Riley, the highly respected independent academic specialising in EU and Russia energy markets. He concluded, “Russia faces a gas deficit. This in turn will lead to major problems for Europe, in particular Germany, Russia’s biggest customer in the west.” Now, if Riley is right, the gas crisis has not passed and we can expect a deepening problem each year until the much needed investment has been made. Of course this is just one of the dimensions of the EU’s energy dependency and we must do all we can to reduce that dependency and the environmental, social and economic consequences. New and partially completed gas pipeline projects must be accelerated especially when they link us to alternate suppliers, and gas storage has to be increased of course – but did you know that the UK’s second largest gas storage facility at Saltfleetby is 75 per cent owned by Gazprom? In south-eastern Europe, we have been particularly hard hit by the recent gas crisis. Short term solutions have been expensive in economical and environmental terms as, for example, district heating boilers were converted back to burn mazoot: black sulphur-rich oil so thick it has to be heated to make it flow. Even internally managed projects such as the much needed reinforcement of high voltage electricity grids and the completion of new nuclear power plants will take 10 years to make a difference. This is why I and so many of my colleagues are calling again for a review of the politically motivated nuclear plant closure agreements for Bulgaria, Slovakia and Lithuania. Together they represent almost 5000 megawatts of potentially available and clean electricity. Given the current economic crisis, we must undertake a review of each agreement to ask if the decisions and demands of a decade ago are still what we want today. As a nuclear power engineer myself, I will be the first to say that operational safety of these units must be the first criterion and I will support any serious independent safety review. Their closure was demanded for political reasons. Now it is time to demand a review for pragmatic, economic, social, environmental and independency reasons.