VILNIUS - Lithuania will ask the European Union for permission to postpone closure of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant's first power unit for half a year - or until next July - in an effort to eliminate possible kilowatt shortages due to the switchover to non-nuclear energy sources.
"We decided to appeal to the European Union and invite experts from the European Commission to come and see for themselves that our arguments are serious," Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas told journalists on Oct. 21 after a meeting with government officials and energy experts.
According to the prime minister, the decision was made due to concerns over the reliability of power supplies in the region.
He said that a letter to the European Commission would be sent in the near future.
Sources from the Lietuvos Rytas daily reported that Brazauskas had coordinated issues related with the Ignalia unit's extension with Dalia Grybauskaite, Lithuania's EU commissioner-designate who handled the Ignalina issue during accession negotiations.
Despite efforts to extend the reactor's lifespan, Lithuania is striving to retain EU funding for further INPP shutdown projects.
Rymantas Juozaitis, CEO of Lietuvos Energija, rejected media reports that Lithuania was being pressured by Russia to extend INPP operations. Other local dailies reported on Russia's apprehensions that Lithuania and Russia's Kaliningrad exclave could face serious electricity supply disruptions should the first INPP unit be closed prior to the completion of a combined heating/power plant in Kaliningrad.
But the construction of two vital power plants in the region has reportedly fallen behind schedule. A 450-megawatt thermal power plant in Kaliningrad is unlikely to start operating before Nov. 1, 2005 (although it had originally been scheduled for 2004), and a 145-megawatt thermal power station in Riga will not be up and running before November 2005.
"This is one of the reasons why operation of the first block has to be extended," Brazauskas said. "If the block is stopped on Dec. 31 of this year, it will reduce reliability of the current complex's electricity import system, which will be acutely felt during the winter season.
"Under these circumstances, we cannot risk leaving this region without electrical power," the prime minister said.
He added that both of Ignalina's power units were in good technical condition and posed no safety concerns, while acknowledging that three Ignalia projects - construction of spent nuclear fuel storage and waste storage facilities - were somewhat behind schedule as they were much more expensive than originally planned.
Pursuant to EU membership talks, Lithuania pledged to close the first of Ignalina's two reactor blocks by the end of 2004 and the whole plant by 2009.
In Brazauskas' opinion, the issue of extending the reactor's operation falls within the EC's responsibility, but it could also be brought up at a EU Council meeting, if needed.
"We are not changing the accession treaty. The principle remains the same - we are closing the first block. This is just an extension of the timetable of closure for half a year,," the prime minister said. He further confirmed that Lithuania had received letters from Russia, Latvia and other neighboring countries voicing concern over regional energy system safety after the shutdown of Ignalia's first unit.
"Meeting participants will try to establish whether, under certain circumstances, Lithuania may face an energy crisis after the shutdown of Ignalina's first unit," Nemira Pumprickaite, the prime minister's spokeswoman, said.
However, last week the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee, which is mostly comprised of Western nuclear-energy experts, recommended that Ignalina's first unit be shut down according to schedule, adding, however, that an extension would not affect the plant's safety.
The INPP produced 14.25 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity last year, of which 7.5 billion kWh were exported to neighboring markets. The plant sold 9.9 billion kWh of electricity in the first nine months of 2004, a decline of 3.8 percent over the same period last year. Its annual sales are projected to reach around 13 billion kWh.