VILNIUS - With the Ignalina reactor closure deadline looming large, Lithuania's government has appointed an emergency negotiator with the European Union in order to win a possible extension to the nuclear power plant's operations.
The government designated Aleksandras Abisala, a former prime minister, on Feb. 26, as head negotiator and chairman of a commission that will hold consultations with the European Commission on energy security.
Immediately after the appointment Abisala was brutally honest in assessing his chances of convincing Europe to reconsider the planned closing of the second reactor, saying there was a "5 percent chance" that talks might succeed.
Still, he added, it is worth trying.
"Until now, the bottom line in talks on extending Ignalina's operations was that it was Lithuania's problem," said Abisala. "We will try to prove that it is a problem for the entire region and the EU."
Abisala, who works as a private energy consultant, stressed that his task would be to search for solutions and not to exert pressure.
In his opinion, any agreement should be reached by the European Council's meeting in November.
"If they [the European Commission] do not agree this fall on something that would help us, we should not expect anything afterwards," Abisala was quoted as saying on Feb. 28.
Ignalina plant officials have previously said they need a final answer on the second reactor's fate this fall, if not earlier, since if it is to be closed preparations must be made over a year in advance.
Upon accession Lithuania promised to close both reactors of the Soviet-built Ignalina power plant. The first was shut down in December 2004. Vilnius hopes to build a new nuclear facility, but since this could require 10 years, if not more, and the country is not hooked up to the EU electricity grid, Lithuania is in dire risk of becoming dependent on Russian kilowatts.
Debates on extending the plant's operations continue among politicians, some of whom are calling for a referendum or legal amendments that would allow Lithuania to keep the reactor working in 2010 and beyond.
The Homeland Union (Conservatives) said it was unhappy with Abisala's appointment. Deputy chairwoman Rasa Jukneviciene said the commission's status wasn't clear, according to reports.
MP Kestutis Cilinskas announced on March 3 that Abisala's appointment is "unlawful" since he failed to give up his job as a private consultant. What's more, he claimed that according to law, only the Economy Ministry is empowered to solve issues dealing with energy strategy implementation.
The choice of Abisala was also criticized by the parliamentary speaker Viktoras Muntianas, a Civil Democrat, who said that an "active politician" should have filled this post.
The minister for transport and communications, Social Democrat Algirdas Butkevicius, suggested that the Foreign Ministry should conduct the talks with Brussels.
Meanwhile, it was unclear how the European Commission would react to Abisala. Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs has previously said that he is against the idea of extending the second reactor.
As he said last year, "The plant must be shut down as scheduled, as this is provided for in Lithuania's accession agreement."
He stressed that there is a mechanism in place to compensate Lithuania for decommissioning the plant, and the money will be lost unless the obligations are met.
"The decommissioning date is not a surprise for Lithuania. Do not waste time on vain discussions," Piebalgs, a Latvian, said.
However, this kind of talk only sticks in the craw of Lithuanians, who generally support nuclear energy and want to remain an energy surplus producer.
A citizens' initiative group is collecting signatures in order to present a draft law for Seimas that would mandate an extension of the plant. Should the group gather the requisite 50,000 signatures, Parliament would be obliged to vote on the legal measure.
On March 3 the Central Electoral Committee registered another civil initiative for holding a referendum, which will require 300,000 signatures.
"Solving this question only on the parliamentary level is not enough 's we need the people's will in order to protect Lithuania's interests in Europe," said Egidijus Masiulis, a strong supporter of the referendum and a member of the Liberal Movement party.
The Conservatives calculated that the closure of Ignalina might result in an 80 percent energy price hike.