VILNIUS - One of the most anticipated events in post-Soviet Baltic history took place over the past week when the first unit of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant was decommissioned in accordance with Lithuania's preaccession agreement with the European Union.
After 21 years of operation, the Ignalina plant, one of the country's leading exporters, lost half of its strength when one of its two units was shut down on Dec. 31. The closure came nine years ahead of schedule according to the plant's original plans dating back to 1983 - the year the unit was put into operation - and called for it to work 30 years.
The decommissioning began at daylight. Capacity was reduced by one-third by 2 p.m. and cut in half by 6 p.m., at which point one of the two turbines was halted.
"The first unit was halted, everything went smoothly," said Viktor Sevaldin, director general of the plant. He said that during the plant's 21-year existence it was stopped about 50 times, which gave plant engineers all the experience necessary to carry out the procedure.
Sevaldin added that there was no longer a point in regretting or arguing whether the unit was safe since a political decision on the plant's fate had been made a long time ago.
The plant's 3,500 employees were less composed, since the closure for them represents massive job loss. They have an average age of 45 and a very narrow specialization. What's more, given Ignalina's remote location, they say new jobs will be slow in coming - if ever.
Staff said that they had not yet heard a single argument as to why the nuclear plant should be shut down before the original 30-year period. Many say that the decision was made due to blackmailing onthe part of the EU.
The atomic plant will cut 200 jobs in 2005.
The Lithuanian Energy Institute said that the early decommissioning of the plant was economically justified. Safekeeping of the abundant electricity surplus, which exceeded the country's domestic needs almost three times, involved additional staff and infrastructure that also required additional spending. This, in turn, led to higher production costs.
Indeed, the plant's closing has intensified the debate over nuclear energy and energy independence in Lithuania, with top state and government officials calling for the construction of a new atomic plant that will allow the Baltic country to continue reaping the benefits of electricity exports.
President Valdas Adamkus said that the prospect of a new unit, one that would meet Western requirements, needed to be pursued.
"I was one of the first ones saying that our country should remain a nuclear state. I have not changed my attitude," he said. "We have to start considering the construction of the third unit - the most modern one. There are a lot of experienced company around the world willing to invest."
Before the second decommissioning in 2009, Adamkus said Lithuania should build a third unit that would be capable of both supplying the whole country with energy and exporting kilowatts as well. He emphasized that a new reactor should not be financed from the budget.
He said that he personally spoke with French President Jacques Chirac and German leaders, both of whom confirmed that their companies and professionals would be interested in the construction of a new reactor.
At the same time decommissioning efforts could also become a financial burden for a country of such size and economic strength. In 2001-2003, the EU granted Lithuania 828 million litas (240 million euros) for preparatory work in closing the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. In addition, the EU has approved 1.1 billion litas in assistance to Lithuania for the 2004-2006 period, and the European Commission has proposed granting another 2.8 billion litas in 2007-2013.
The Economy Ministry announced that the approximate total cost of the plant decommissioning and subsequent energy supply projects would amount to some 3 billion euros. So far, Lithuanian negotiators have bargained the financial assistance from the EU only 2.5 smaller than that what is needed to terminate the decommissioning works.
Lithuania was considered one of the most nuclear dependent countries in the world, since the Ignalina plant used to generate more than 80 percent of the country's energy needs.
The early closure was largely predestined by a combination of history and Western pressure, as the Soviet-style reactors, each with a capacity of 1,300 megawatts, were considered unsafe after the 1986 Chernobyl accident. But a security assessment showed that the Ignalina plant's safety level was comparable to nuclear power plants in Western countries.
However, some experts drew the conclusion that the risk of operating nuclear power plants with Chernobyl-type RBMK reactors could not be reduced to such an extent that they could be safe enough for long-term operation.
The first unit will remain in its current dormant state until a new solid waste management and storage facility is built in 2008. The second unit will continue supplying Lithuania with the same levels of electricity as before, only less energy will be exported.
Sevaldin said that one unit produces 7.5 billion kWh a year and 6.5 billion of those are meant for domestic needs. The plant will continue exporting the surplus until 2009, when the second of the two present reactors will be terminated too, he said.