VILNIUS - President Valdas Adamkus has stated that the European Union might be willing to open talks on the possibility of allowing the Ignalina nuclear power plant to remain operational beyond its scheduled closure in December 2009.
"I heard some very encouraging first signals that they're already thinking of reviewing some of the points," he told Swedish Radio on Jan. 26, referring to points of Lithuania's pre-accession agreement with the EU.
Commenting on statements from several EU officials, including Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, that Lithuania would have to honor its pre-accession commitment and close Ignalina, Adamkus said, "But I heard some other statements after that...make me a little bit happier." He was quick to add a caveat, however. "I believe it was not formally officially stated, so I'm not going to quote who did that, but I believe I can reassure you that there are some openings," he said.
The statement points to a possible reassessment in Brussels of the Baltics' energy vulnerability, which starting in 2010 will see a major megawatt deficit once Ignalina's second, 1,300 megawatt reactor is turned off. EU leaders understand Lithuanians' apprehension at suddenly turning into an electricity deficit-nation, but they are also instinctively distrustful of the Soviet-type reactor.
What's more, if Brussels grants Vilnius an extension on closing Ignalina, that will set a precedent for other new member states, particularly Bulgaria, where on Jan. 25 a top official said that the Balkan state should continue to lobby Brussels to keep two reactors at the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant open.
Bulgaria shut the Soviet-made reactors down in January 2007 as part of its pre-accession commitment to the EU.
Adamkus is a recent convert to the idea of lobbying Brussels on behalf of the Ignalina plant. Previously the president slammed any attempts by Lithuanian politicians who suggested opening up the topic with the European Union.
But the reality of a several year energy deficit, made more acute as plans for a new nuclear plant run into endless delays, has changed Adamkus' tune.
The gap between the planned shutdown of Ignalina and the startup of a new reactor will "definitely create some hardships and even damages economically to the region," in the president's words.
Originally Baltic leaders had hoped that the new reactor would be operational by 2015, but this looks increasingly unlikely given that construction will not begin before 2009. Nuclear power plant projects are notorious for delays and exceeding original outlays.
"We see that it would be unreasonable to create economic disorder in a region for these couple of yearsâ€¦ so we will ask the European Union to just take a very hard look at our request and see if we can actually get a reprieve for a couple years because we're not a danger for the area," Adamkus said.
An experienced environmentalist, Adamkus sought to assuage Swedes that Ignalina is not a faulty reactor whose flaws are placing the region at risk.
"Ignalina, the way it physically exists right now, is safe because of the Swedish government and the Swedish people's help 's because you provided us at a very critical moment about $100 million so that we could improve, update our Ignalina reactor," he said.
"Ignalina is definitely not creating any immediate danger for the [future], even if we are talking about 2015 and 2020," he said.
The Ignalina reactor's original design allows it to operate as long as 2028. At the same time, Adamkus said Lithuania was prepared to shut down the plant if Brussels insisted.
"If the European Union is going to insist, not on the technical basis 's but on the political basis 's Lithuania is going to comply because we are a member of the same union," he said.
February marks the two-year anniversary since the Baltic states' announced in Trakai that they would build a new nuclear power plant. Poland was included in December 2006, much to the dismay of Latvia and Estonia, and there is a possibility the large neighbor could pull out of the project if it does not get control over 1,000 's 1,200 megawatts of output.
Meanwhile, the Lithuanian government has fumbled in its attempts to create a so-called national investor 's or a state-controlled utility 's that will build the plant and raise finance.
Indeed, since its inception the new plant has been mired in difficulties, mainly political.
"Enough time has passed since February 2006, and we were unable to advance considerably in the project. The company to develop the project was not established," Hardijs Baumanis, Latvia's ambassador to Lithuania, was quoted as saying recently.
"We expect Lithuania's internal issues to be sorted out in order for the four partners to advance in implementation of the project. I hope we can plan for a fast advancement as of early February," he said.
Estonian energy officials have expressed similar worries.
"We do not pose excessive demands onto the Lithuanian side. We are ready to participate if we can receive 500 or 600 megawatts of power from the station. Considering the power of the plant, Latvia could be granted this power amount," the ambassador said.
The nuclear power plant is part of a larger project to remain energy independent and connect the Baltics' electricity grids with those of Europe. Currently only one undersea link connects Estonia and Finland's grids.