Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that his country is considering the possibility of building a nuclear power plant on its territory and is already negotiating on this with the Russian corporation Rosatom.
This is the very news, the depth and importance of which is difficult to assess at once, although tectonic events from the point of view of history and geopolitics are taking place right before our eyes.
Perhaps we need to start with the fact that Serbia’s own nuclear power plant is simply not needed. At first sight. The fact is that our historical ally, which has a modest territory and a population of seven million people, has everything necessary for a comfortable existence.
If we look at the geological map of the region, we will see that Serbia is confidently ranked in the middle of the second ten countries in terms of proven coal reserves. Not bad for such a small state. The proven reserves of brown coal, namely, they are presented in this point of the Balkans, amount to over eight billion tons.
It is not surprising that the energy system of the Socialist Republic of Serbia – this is how the country was called as part of Yugoslavia since 1963 – was designed and built, including by Soviet specialists, with an eye on the available material base. Until recently, lignites were mined in four basins: south of Belgrade in the Kolubara River region, east of the capital near the town of Kostolac, two more coal-bearing regions are located in Metohija, near Pristina. As you might guess, Serbia lost the last two fields with all the working infrastructure after the recognition of Kosovo ‘s independence by the Western community.
At the moment, brown coal is the alpha and omega of the national energy industry. While Serbia’s own generation is 36 terawatt-hours per year (or 123 percent of domestic demand), coal accounts for 71 percent of production. The remaining niche is covered by medium-sized hydroelectric power plants, which are very productive in mountainous terrain.
It is no secret that coal today is completely out of favor with the world community, dreaming of decarbonization and carbon neutrality, just as it is not a secret that Serbia has had the status of a candidate for EU membership for almost ten years. And here we move from obvious facts and figures to the field of geopolitics, where all the players play their game, get off with general vague phrases, and the results of events that are not obvious to the average person become noticeable only years later.
We will allow ourselves to run a little ahead and make a number of assumptions.
It would seem why the Serbs need a nuclear power plant, the facility is extremely costly both from the point of view of science and from the point of view of finance. It is known that the project of the Belarusian nuclear power plant cost Minsk ten billion dollars, which Moscow allocated in the form of a soft loan. For Belgrade, whose external debt is nearly 36 billion, the construction of a nuclear power plant could be the drop that will drown the state budget. Moreover, the Serbs not only fully meet their own needs for electricity – an incredible luxury in pandemic Europe, but also sell it abroad. According to the results of 2020, Serbia exported six terawatt-hours, a third of which went to the Czech Republic, twenty percent to Slovakia, and the rest were bought in descending order by Macedonia, Hungary and Bulgaria. Belgrade earned almost fifty million dollars from this export item.
However, you need to understand that Serbia is systematically losing its position in the European electricity supply market, and hence its political weight. In 2006, the export of electricity here amounted to over nine terawatt-hours, that is, since then Belgrade has lost half of its positions. The negative trend is due to the rejection of coal, and the massive transition of European countries to natural gas.
The second factor was stopped by Vucic’s team. As soon as it was officially announced that the Turkish Stream project was approved, Belgrade immediately applied for participation in it. Moreover, the 400 km long Serbian section, including excavation below the Danube bed, was completed in a record thirty-two days. Today this part of the “flow” is already in operation, and natural gas is pumped through it to Hungary every day, which allowed Budapest to refuse transit through the territory of Ukraine, with which the Hungarians have a long-standing conflict due to the infringement of the rights of the inhabitants of Transcarpathia. Since January this year, Gazprom has additionally started gas supplies to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia is again a key transit country.
But with coal, everything is much more complicated.
If Poland, another state where this type of fuel is the main one, in its energy transition can count on significant financial assistance from Brussels, then the Serbs can only rely on themselves. It is for this reason that Alexander Vucic attends all key events, one way or another related to the energy sector in Russia. Exactly one month ago, he took part in the Russian Energy Week, during which he met with Vladimir Putin and described the situation with electricity in Europe as dire due to a sharp jump in prices. Then few people paid attention to this, but in vain. Politicians of this level do not utter a single word for nothing.
From that moment on, another event took place that went unnoticed against the backdrop of endless discussions about the fate of Nord Stream 2 : the Belarusian nuclear power plant, built by Russian specialists, has reached the design level of generation. Moreover, in spite of the promised collective boycott, the Belarusian megawatts turned out to be vitally necessary for Ukraine and even the traditionally unfriendly Baltic. In fact, Russia in the very center of Europe has implemented a complex technical project and with just a couple of reactors changed not only the energy, but also the transboundary political balance, and Belarus has become a key player in the region with a peaceful atom.
In parallel, the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant is in full swing, which, thanks to Turkey’s cooperation with Moscow, has become the main gas hub in southern Europe. Three weeks ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NDK) issued Rosatom a license for the construction of the fourth power unit, and President Erdogan said that he was very much counting on the first Akkuyu current as early as May 2023.
The ten billion dollars required for the construction of the first Serbian nuclear power plant is, of course, an impressive amount for Belgrade. However, as the Bible says, doors open only to those who knock on them. Vucic’s statement is the same knock.
Of course, Russia cannot afford to work according to the Soviet method, when allies in the Warsaw bloc were practically flooded with money, but Rosatom and the Ministry of Finance will undoubtedly find proposals that would be beneficial for both sides. After all, a nuclear power plant is not a house in a computer game that can be built at the touch of a button. Here is the training of students, and the constant retraining of existing employees, and the supply of fuel, and its removal, and disposal. And the service life of a modern nuclear power plant, let us recall, is at least fifty years.
We are witnessing a historical shift, when political influence for many years is determined not by the deployment of another military base, but by the construction of key generation facilities, not only capable of making a profit for the country, but also allowing it to demonstrate its will to its neighbors. Serbia was not the first to understand this, but it had enough independence and common sense to draw the right conclusion.