September 26, 2022

Developing Nuclear Energy in Estonia: An Amplifier of Strategic Partnership with the United States?

PantherMedia / Scanpix

Estonia’s climate neutrality commitments and its simultaneous pursuit of national security mean that it will need to develop and cultivate new zero- or low-carbon, affordable, secure and safe domestic sources of energy. Nuclear energy is increasingly regarded as one of the critical ingredients of successful transition to climate-neutral energy system and as a viable part of the future decarbonised mix of energy supply. Therefore, Estonia is officially considering the possibility to adopt nuclear energy generated by new-design Small Modular Reactors (SMR).

This choice, however, is not purely environmental, economic or technical, but also has geopolitical implications. It would create new long-term inter-dependencies with foreign partners which could represent fresh opportunities for closer cooperation in security and foreign policy domain, but also could create some new political, reputational, and national security risks. This geopolitical dimension is of particular importance to countries such as Estonia that seek greater involvement of key allies such as the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany in the Nordic-Baltic area to counter the geopolitical pressure from Russia and, increasingly, China.

The report assumes that Estonia might eventually opt for nuclear energy and would then choose the US as its SMR technology supplier. It explores how Estonia’s foreign and security policy interests would benefit from a potential adoption of nuclear energy and development of technological and commercial relations in this field with the US. The report also maps various potential risks in relations with several key fellow member states of the European Union that may arise from Estonia turning to nuclear power as a major source of energy and to the US for a technological solution. It considers how certain structural issues in national energy policies and divergent geopolitical perspectives of Germany, France, and Poland – as well as some persistent characteristics of intra-European relations manifest through the EU’s common policies – may impair or facilitate Estonian nuclear aspirations.

The study also highlights that Estonia’s affirmative decision concerning nuclear energy is likely to draw the attention and actions of malignant actors such as Russia aiming to discredit nuclear energy in general, as a viable pathway to energy security and climate neutrality, and US SMR technology in particular; undermine trust – domestically and internationally – in the ability of the Estonian government and enterprises to ensure competent and responsible stewardship of nuclear energy, and pit Estonia against some key regional and European allies.

The report articulates some recommendations on how to better exploit the opportunities related to the US involvement in the development of Estonia’s nuclear energy programme and mitigate the identified risks.

Download the report: Developing Nuclear Energy in Estonia (PDF)