Europe ponies up 200 million euros for Ignalina

  • 2000-06-29
  • By Peter J. Mladineo
VILNIUS - Lithuania's first taste of international magnanimity regarding the decommissioning of Ignalina was a tinge sweeter than expected.

While a handful of protesters gathered outside the Villon Hotel, the site of the first international donors conference for the decommissioning of the first block of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, foreign emissaries from European and G7 nations congregated inside, in what could have been the largest money-raising event in Lithuanian history.

By the end of the first day, 207.85 million euros (roughly 825 million litas or about $206.3 million) were pledged, mostly by European nations. The government, which has said that the first block's closure would require 200 million euros, is viewing this first round a success.

The big contributors were the European Union, which pledged 165 million euros; Denmark, which promised 16.2 million, and Sweden, 13 million.

Belgium promised 1.65 million euros. France, Germany, Iceland and Japan promised technical assistance only. The United Kingdom said it would make a contribution, the amount of which is to be determined later. The UK also said that it would be paying English language tuition for many Visaginas residents.

Several other states, including Norway, Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland and the United States, each pledged 1.5 million - the minimum amount required to participate in a newly set-up Ignalina support fund overseen by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

According to a report by Rimantas Vaitkus, vice minister of economy, decommissioning the entire plant will eventually cost roughly 4 billion litas and will take from 25 to 30 years to complete. During this period, he added, from 1,000 to 1,500 employees will be needed. Currently, the total staff is 5,000.

All of Lithuania's top officials - President Valdas Adamkus, Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius and Parliamentary Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis - attended the conference. One event organizer noted that only a few events a year - mostly state holidays - would draw these three leaders under the same roof.

The Lithuanians didn't hesitate to express what a sacrifice Lithuania was making in its decision to decommission Ignalina and implored the foreign delegates for donations.

"I dare to say that this is a true test of cooperation between Lithuania and Western partners. The Ignalina nuclear plant should not be considered a purely Lithuanian problem. Lithuania had nothing to do with the construction of the plant, and Lithuania should not be left alone to solve this problem," Kubilius said.

Calling the plant a "legacy of the former system," Kubilius remarked that the plant was built to serve the Soviet Union's energy needs.

The plant's reactors, RBMK-1500 water-cooled graphite-moderated channel-type power reactors, are the largest of their type in the world, Lithuanians claim.

Kubilius said the country was lucky that work to complete Unit 3 was discontinued in 1989, largely because of the protests of environmentalists after the Chernobyl accident.

"Had the initial plan been realized we would have had to face a bigger problem today," Kubilius said.

Ignalina, he added, "became a symbol of nuclear energy risks after Chernobyl."

(The closure of the Chernobyl plant, reported Joachim Jahnke, an EBRD vice president, was fixed for Dec. 15. Interestingly, the delegation >from the Ukraine didn't make it to the conference. Their seats remained conspicuously empty during the action.)

Kubilius brought up another problem resulting from Ignalina's closure. Currently, because of Ignalina, Lithuania produces twice as much electricity as it needs. Consequently, the country's other electricity plants run at minimal capacity, Kubilius reported.

The Lithuanian PM also criticized the tone of EU's pressure on Lithuania to close the plant.

"It is no secret that this decision was provoked by the rather controversial attitude of the European Union members," he said.

Gunter Verheugen, a member of the European Commission, stated Europe's case.

"The simple fact is that Lithuania inherited the wrong machine. The former Soviet Union built two RBMK-type reactors on Lithuanian soil. This is the core of the problem," he said. "If Lithuania had inherited a nuclear power reactor of another design the European Union would never have demanded its closure."

Verheugen also insisted that closing Ignalina was not the main criterion for Lithuania's eventual accession to EU.

"I oppose any notion that Ignalina should be seen as the main issue of Lithuania's accession to the union. It is not. It would be unfair towards Lithuania to make such an assumption. Lithuania inherited a weighty burden from which other candidate countries were spared. The liberalization of the energy sector is the real challenge for accession," Verheugen said.

A knuckler was thrown by the Russian delegation, which offered to lease Ignalina for the long-term for its own energy needs and then pick up the costs of decommissioning and resulting social fallout later. Bulat Nigmatulin, Russia's vice minister of nuclear energy, maintained that the RBMK reactors are safe. He also pleaded that Russia, with diminishing gas reserves, needed an extra source of electricity.

"This winter will be not as warm as last year's. Can you just imagine, 18 billion kilowatts per hour - that's Ignalina's generation per year. That's about 300 million dollars per year," Nigmatulin said.

Nigmatulin's figures were in conflict with those of the Lithuanian government, which reports that Ignalina's largest yearly output, as recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records, was 12.6 billion kilowatts per hour, in 1993. Nevertheless, Nigmatulin's offer was later rejected by Lithuanian and European officials.

"This proposition about leasing is seeking political, not economic, goals. I expect that Russia itself will close its unsafe nuclear power stations," Kubilius said.

The small group of protesters outside the hotel voiced considerably sharp complaints to the European delegations inside. Placards accused EU of corruption, anti-competitive attitudes and of ruining Lithuania's economy. One sign demanded that Europe close all of its nuclear power plants before demanding that action from Lithuania. Another sign claimed that EU was responsible for a rise in Lithuania's suicide rate.

Another sign acerbically questioned the Europeans' motives.

"Why are you afraid of our electrical energy competition? We need no charity."