Chasing after shadows – or – The nuclear power plant never built in Estonia

Sometimes interesting intellectual journeys can start with literally one small dot on a map. This happened to us when Achim was looking at a book that featured the map of nuclear power plants planned for the Soviet Union. Do you know anything about this dot on the territory of Estonia, he asked. I did not.

The dot was somewhat misplaced geographically and timewise, it seems, but nevertheless opened a question: what about that power plant planned for Estonia? There never was “a real” nuclear power plant in Estonia, although ESSR had some nuclear infrastructure: for example, 90 and 70 mW reactors in Paldiski, meant for training nuclear submarinists, or the uranium processing facilities in Sillamäe. Any bigger nuclear power plants were never built.

Anto Raukas (standing) giving an opening speech at a conference in the honour of F. G. Bellingshausen’s 200th birth anniversary in 1978 (almost a decade later than this story unfolds!). Academician Ilmar Öpik to his right. Estonian National Archive, EFA.774.0.411333

A closer look reveals a story that talks to the core of the NuclearWaters project. Some time between 1966-1968, The Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics started to enquire about the possibility to build a nuclear power plant at Lake Võrtsjärv and summoned a series of meetings in Estonia. Three Estonian experts were apparently involved in the meetings, all from the Estonian Academy of Sciences: Ilmar Öpik, Harald Haberman and Anto Raukas. Document trail of these negotiations is hard to pin down but luckily Academician Raukas is still in good health and could meet me and Achim in early May to talk about the parts that he remembered.

Võrtsjärv may look big on a map but it is extremely shallow. Initial plans envisioned an RBMK of the size of 4000 mWatts! What would this do to a lake with a volume of less than 1 cubic km? The three Estonian Academicians summoned help from the limnology specialists and together they reached a conclusion that even a 1000 megaWatt reactor would heat the lake by 10 degrees, causing a major ecological collapse. According to Raukas, raising the level of the lake was not considered, in order to protect the fertile agricultural lands of Rannu collective farm.

Yet loads of questions remain that guide us into new avenues and archives. How important was rivalry for water resources between the energy sector and agriculture in the early Soviet Union? Would food security really weigh more than energy supply in the central planning documents? How would the experts calculate the impact of the reactor type that had never been built before? When the impressive 10 degrees calculation was done, no RMBKs had been built yet. Why not think of a river or was that the realm destined for hydroelectricity only? Why did they consider lakes and not sea? Sosnovyi Bor was eventually built on the Baltic coast so why not go for the Latvian coast if the purpose of the NPP was to provide energy to Riga? While memories are elusive and many documents will never be accessible, the journey continues…