VILNIUS - The Lithuanian parliament decided Monday that a referendum on the future of the Ignalina nuclear power plant will be held in conjunction with the Oct. 12 parliamentary elections.
The referendum will ask citizens of Lithuania whether the plant should operate beyond the original 2009 shutdown deadline, which was set as a condition of Lithuania's accession to the EU.
President Valdas Adamkus has condemned the referendum, saying he would veto it if he had the power. "In the president's opinion â€¦ this stance will not contribute to gaining a better understanding of Lithuania's request to extend the activity of the Ignalina nuclear power plant until construction of the new one is started," said Rita Grumadaite, said the president's spokeswoman. The president's office declined to comment further.
The referendum has also received mixed reviews from parliamentarians. The chair of the parliamentary economics committee, Social Democrat MP Birute Vesaite, lauded the referendum and said Lithuania should follow Ireland's example, referring to that country's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum. "The European Commission likes us as long as we keep silent. Our quiet conciliation is welcomed by those who are waiting to occupy the market niche," Vesaite said.
However, conservative party leader Andrius Kubilius expressed concern that the move to ask the people was hasty. He questioned the reasoning behind the referendum, asking whether it was a challenge to Lithuania's EU accession treaty or grounds for new negotiations.
Vesaite responded to the question, saying that the referendum is indeed a challenge to the accession treaty. She said when Lithuania joined the EU there were different issues to contend with. "Since Lithuania signed the accession treaty the world has changed greatly with higher energy prices," she said.
She said it is in Lithuania's best interests to challenge the current agreement. "It is stupid from an economical point of view to shut down a plant that makes cheap power. â€¦ No one wants to pay double for their electricity," Vesaite said.
Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas was in Paris on the weekend for the Mediterranean region summit and said other countries in the EU are coming around on this point. "It seems that many countries understand our situation. Countries are rapidly revising their policies with regard to nuclear energy. For instance, Germany is already in the process of deciding to build new nuclear facilities. From this point of view, the setting for the decision is changing for the better," said Kirkilas.
The EU accession treaty stated that the plant, which is the same design as the catastrophic Chernobyl plant, should be shut down by end of 2009. Current forecasts for the construction of the replacement plant predict that it could only be in operation by 2018 at the earliest.
During the parliament-supported referendum, the population will be able to state its position regarding the extension of Ignalina's lifespan - voters will have to vote "yes" or "no." The consultative referendum on the fate of the Ignalina nuclear power plant is the last chance for Lithuanians to have their say on the issue.
The plant has been in the news for months due to the hole that it would leave in the country's energy resources. Lithuania is one of the few countries in the world that are not dependent on others for electricity.
European plans for plugging the hole in energy supplies include building a power bridge between Poland and Lithuania. There are problems with the plan however because the completion of construction has been estimated for 2013. This leaves a four-year gap where Lithuanians are afraid of being left at the mercy of Russian energy supplies. "2010 and 2012 will be very tough years for Lithuania and we aren't connected to any other electricity grid than Russia. This is very dangerous," Vesaite said.
The referendum will be only considered valid with a turnout of at least half of all eligible voters. About 2.7 million residents of Lithuania are now listed as voters.
"We believe that the voice of the people is the highest democracy. Lithuania is an energy island. If the [European] commission doesn't know our position then we have to show them," Vedaite said about the importance of the referendum.
The proposal to hold the referendum was supported by 88 parliamentarians at Monday's plenary, while five were against and 11 abstained from voting.