EU official: Lithuania overly hopeful about Ignalina extension

  • 2006-01-18
  • From wire reports

BEWARE OF IGNALINA: Energy commissioner Piebalgs (right) and the European Council's energy chief, Austria's Martin Bartenstein, may have to put Lithuania's leadership in place

VILNIUS - An EU official was quoted by a newspaper as saying that Brussels was perplexed by Lithuanian politicians' statements about a possible postponement for shutting down the second, and last, reactor at the Ignalina atomic power plant.
"No one in the commission really understands what Lithuania wants. One day it seems that Vilnius plans to build a new nuclear power station. The next day it turns out that they want to extend the life of the old reactor," Lietuvos rytas quoted the official, who did not want to be named, as saying.

"Then come accusations that the Poles are dragging their feet in building a power bridge and that Lithuania will face energy shortages in several years' time," the official added.

In light of rising energy costs and Russia's standoff with Ukraine over natural gas prices, Lithuanian leaders, particularly Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas and Economy Min-ister Kestutis Dauksys, have made numerous announcements to the effect that Lithuania would try to renegotiate a new timetable for closing the second reactor with the European Union.

As part of its EU accession treaty, Lithuania promised to shut down the Ignalina plant by the end of 2009. The first of the plant's two Soviet-built reactors was closed on the last day of 2004.

Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, spokesman for Energy Commis-sioner Andris Piebalgs, said the timetable for closure could not be renegotiated.

"In its EU membership negotiations, the Lithuanian government committed to the closure of the first unit before 2005 and of the second unit by the end of 2009. That was the key issue in the negotiations. The (accession) treaty contains a special protocol, No. 4, on Ignalina, which sets out obligations and offers substantial assistance from the EU," he said.

Brussels maintains that the Ignalina plant cannot be upgraded to meet the required safety standards and so must be closed.

Rytis Martikonis, Lithuania's permanent representative to the EU, also acknowledges that renegotiating the accession treaty is virtually impossible.

"This treaty is a document of the highest legal rank. It is absolutely binding. The text cannot be renegotiated," the diplomat said. "But if a problem arises, we can look for other ways to solve it. This will depend on our political and diplomatic abilities."

Still, some legal experts believe that there are certain loopholes in the protocol on the Ignalina station that could help prove that Lithuania's pledge to shut down the plant is not unconditional.

Meanwhile, Lietuvos rytas reported on Jan. 13 that the Ministry of Economy was acting contrary to the recommendations of scientists as regards to a new nuclear power plant project in Lithuania. In December, the ministry received a report "Nuclear Power Plant Competitiveness on Baltic, Nordic, Western European and Russia's Electricity Markets," conducted by scientists of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Control Systems of the Kaunas University of Technology. The conclusions were absolutely contrary to the steps taken by the economy minister, the daily noted.

"Building a new nuclear power plant by 2020 would be economically sound provided that the crude prices remained very high and the country had no opportunities for electricity imports," the scientists said in their report, which was commissioned by the ministry.

Rimantas Deksnys, leader of a task group of scientists, said that Lithuania's energy generation capacities would suffice to cover the demand until 2015. However, the closure of the nuclear power plant in Ignalina would leave the largest power plant, Lietuvos Elektrine, operating at larger capacities, and the costs of electricity generated at the power plant would be higher if compared with those of INPP.

The surge in prices would be even greater if the construction of a new nuclear power plant was launched.

The scientists said in their conclusions that INPP should be replaced by the capacities of Lietuvos Elektrine and both the older and newer heat-and-power (CHP) plants, provided that the crude prices are low.

Should the prices remain at a very high level, the economic benefit of the nuclear plant would even surpass that of imported electricity, which could come true by 2020.

In the meantime, Minister Dauksys announced that the country should make up its mind over the building of a new nuclear facility by the end of this year. On Jan. 17, Brazauskas said that Lithuania expected that Latvia and Estonia would likely assist in the construction and maintenance of the new nuclear power plant and that he hoped to receive confirmation of this at an international conference on Jan. 26 's 27.

"A large meeting of energy specialists will take place next week, bringing together specialists and ministers of all neighboring countries. We will speak about a nuclear plant there - there has to be a source to maintain it, we need to find one. I believe Latvia and Estonia will contribute," Brazauskas told the national radio.

Indeed, this week Latvia's Economy Minister Krisjanis Karins voiced support for construction of a new nuclear plant in Lithuania. He told the Baltic News Service that he did not rule out Latvia's participation in the project and said it could be best done through Latvenergo, the state-run energy company.

Karins pointed out that the Latvian government might decide on the construction of a new nuclear power plant only after the approval of Latvia's new strategy for energy security development for the next 10 years.

He said the ministry was going to submit a new draft energy program at the meeting of state secretaries this week. The draft program, he said, stresses the need to increase the number of foreign energy supply connections by including Latvia in the EU's network of energy sources, as currently Latvia has access only to Russian energy sources.

The program also provides for reducing dependency on a single energy source as well as for the increase of other energy sources that are available to Latvia, such as renewable energy resources, wood, woodchip, peat, etc.

Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis also expressed support for the new nuclear power plant in Lithuania, saying it would be the best solution for Latvia, as it would ensure greater energy independence. The prime minister said though that it was necessary to do various economic calculations first.