On May 2 Parliament approved decommissioning of the first power unit at the Ignalina nuclear power plant with 68 MPs voting in favor, 25 against and two abstentions. Parliament's decision about the date of closure for the second power unit is scheduled for 2004.
Ignalina is seen by the EC as an obstacle on Lithuania's way to EU membership, which is desired by a majority of the population. The April survey conducted by the social research firm Vilmorus showed that some 65 percent of Lithuania's population want to join the EU, while 14.5 percent are against it. The safety issues of the Soviet-built Ignalina nuclear plant are also important in the discussions.
"Some think we are closing Ignalina nuclear plant because of the demands of the EU. Not true. It is a question of our safety," Conservative Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said in the Parliament urging MPs to support the law on the first unit's closure on April 2. The Conservative Party initiated the law.
The biggest critics of the law are 12 MPs of the Moderate Conservatives faction formed by former Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius. They were expelled from the Conservative Party recently. The Democratic Labor and Social Democratic parties share the Moderate Conservatives' view on Ignalina.
Those who argue the plant's closure are mostly concerned about the costs of this expensive process. Kestutis Skrebys, MP of the Moderate Conservative faction, says that the enthusiasm of his former colleagues from the Conservative Party to close Ignalina without guarantees of financing from the EU is plain stupidity.
On the eve of Parliament's decision, he said that the law on Ignalina's closure should not be discussed without receiving guarantees of financing from the EU.
"We'll not be able to negotiate with the EU if such a law is passed. We'll be able to beg for money only then, and the EU will give just some insignificant technical help," Skrebys said.
Lithuanian experts say that closure of the nuclear plant and the social consequences for Visaginas town, almost entirely populated by the power plant's workers, will cost from 4 to 5 billion euros.
Henrik Schmiegelow, head of the delegation of the EC to Lithuania, said the figures are an "overestimation." He disagrees with Skrebys' suspicions.
"If the law is being passed there is as much guarantee as you can possibly have in the international community. According to our estimates we're talking about 1 billion euros for the actual decommissioning of the two units," Schmiegelow said. "Of course, after that there will be the question of disposal of the nuclear waste, something that has not really been solved in any country with that situation, which makes it quite difficult to estimate how much that is going to be. And then some expense relating to solving social problems, but I mean the actual hardcore expenses will be 1 billion euros."
Schmiegelow said the expenses to prepare decommissioning over the next 6-7 years would be about 200 million euros. The EU has already pledged 150 million euros for Ignalina's closure, said Schmiegelow. He expressed regret that Lithuania gathered "very little money" for Ignalina's decommissioning fund.
"If you add that there will be some additional contributions from other donors, then the remaining figure is not an impossible figure to handle looking upon it over a 5-6 year period. I think one can say the EU already has pledged the majority of the funds and will continue to assist Lithuania in the best way we can. We're having a pledge conference in June that will clearly not be the last pledge conference," Schmiegelow said.
An international conference of donors over closure of Ignalina nuclear plant is scheduled for the coming June in Vilnius.
Meanwhile, the British company National Power has offered to turn the first unit of Ignalina nuke into a gas-fired plant, said Audrius Baciulis, spokesman for the prime minister.
He said that National Power had offered to re-equip the first bloc of the Ignalina plant into a gas-driven power facility "at their own risk and expense."
This idea is related to the Nordic Gas Grid project providing for Norwegian gas deliveries to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The Norwegian project will pay off if Norway would export 10 billion cubic meters of gas annually.
According to Baciulis, Poland intends to buy 5 billion cubic meters of Norwegian gas. "If the Ignalina plant is turned into a gas-fired facility, we'll also take 5 billion," Baciulis told Baltic News Service.