Nuclear project back on track

  • 2011-06-08
  • By Matt Garrick

PAVING THE WAY: Andrius Kubilius says a deal with investors in a new nuclear plant should be finished this year.

VILNIUS - The Lithuanian government has steamrolled closer to solidifying their plan for a new nuclear plant to be constructed in the township of Visaginas from 2014, after two major global electric companies submitted their proposals to work as strategic investors in the project.

The Ministry of Energy confirmed on June 1 that competitive proposals for investing into the plant were received by the Lithuanian government from Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy Limited, a hybrid venture of General Electric Co. and Hitachi Ltd, and America-based Westinghouse Electric Company.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius affirmed that the submissions, the result of “tense negotiations” between the companies and government, were positive and could aid in paving the way toward Baltic energy independence.
“By the end of this year we are expecting to have a deal with a strategic investor finished, and all the planning procedures, then by 2014, or even maybe a little bit earlier, we will be starting real construction work on the site. 2020 will be the latest date when the nuclear plant should be operating,” Kubilius told The Baltic Times.

The securing of strategic investors had been long-awaited by the Lithuanian government, who were fending off months of skepticism due to plans for the plant failing to materialize, following setbacks such as the withdrawal by a Korean-based company as a key competitor for the project’s tender in 2010.

Speculation that Russian gas-giant Gazprom was responsible for the walk-out last December by the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) had left a mark of uncertainty as to the plant’s future. “For us, it was difficult to understand what the reason was for them to withdraw. It coincided with a shelling incident when North Korea was shelling South Korea. They pulled out at the same time. Maybe that’s a reason. Another reason could have been Gazprom had made a very lucrative offer to the South Korean government, in terms of supply,” Kubilius deduced, as the construction of a new nuclear plant in Lithuania would decrease the energy monopoly Gazprom currently holds in the country.

“We have a much stronger challenge to build the basis for energy independence, because just now we are 100 percent dependant on gas supplies from Russia, and since we closed the Ignalina [nuclear] power station, we are dependent on electricity imports from Russia also. We are importing around 50 percent of our electricity from Russia. So our wish to be much more independent on energy markets is very clearly based,” explained Kubilius.

“Nuclear power allows us to become more independent. And as we can see from comparisons in international markets: building nuclear, especially using the infrastructure of the old site [decommissioned nuclear power station at Ignalina], it is really able to give a very competitive price for electricity,” he said.

Despite the developments, Gazprom officials have declared their intentions of retaining a foothold as a leading distributor of energy into Lithuania. “As the largest energy supplier in the Baltic market, Gazprom sees its objective, both current and future, as reliable suppliers of a strategically important energy source: natural gas to local consumers,” confirmed a Gazprom spokesperson.

Focusing on nuclear energy as an alternative power, the Baltics have allegedly been met by positive reactions by governments throughout the region. As the plant could offer a power source to neighboring countries, Latvia, Estonia and Poland, “together with the European Commission, give high support to the project, as we all treat nuclear energy not only as a source for competitive electricity, but also as a most attractive option to reduce GHG emissions,” claimed advisor to the Minister of Energy, Kestutis Jauniskis.

“Poland even has double interest, if I can say, because they have a shortage of electricity in the northeast, which is bordering Lithuania. Also, they are planning to have their own nuclear power station(s) around 2020, or a little bit later. So for them, there is an interest of supply and an interest in accumulating nuclear know-how,” said Kubilius.

Despite enthusiasm for the project, concerns about the safety and environmental impact of the plant on its surroundings were abundant, particularly in response to Japan’s disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility earlier this year.
“We can take an example from countries which also have long experience with nuclear technologies, for example Sweden or France, which after the Fukushima events, as all of the European Union did, decided to implement much more efficient nuclear safety requirements with a new stress-test. But they are not abandoning, nor are they changing, their strategic attitudes to what nuclear energy is, as an energy which is clean, if you compare it with coal or gas usage for the production of electricity,” said Kubilius.

A government-issued Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the proposed nuclear plant was undertaken during 2009, to determine if the project could potentially cause harm to the environment. Though the verdict gave leeway for the project to continue, its decision was met with anger from green industries, who appealed to the administrative court of Vilnius against it. Greenpeace and CEE Bankwatch Network, together with Latvian and Lithuanian green movements, filed the appeal, citing insufficient public information and lack of evaluation for the disposal and final storage of radioactive waste from the plant as their motives.

The appeal has since been rejected, and a campaign to take the matter to the highest administrative court has not yet surfaced. The Ministry of Environment claimed the nuclear project will go ahead under close precautions.
“For the implementation of the concrete project, a [further] EIA will be carried out,” said ministry official Migle Masaityte. “Implementation of any plan or project shall be in compliance with national and international (EU, United Nations conventions and other) requirements.”