Lithuania postpones closure of Ignalina

  • 2001-05-03
  • TBT staff
VILNIUS - Lithuanian Economy Minister Eugenijus Gentvilas announced on April 27 that Lithuania will postpone the decommissioning of the Ignalina nuclear power plant. Since this flies in the face of repeated European Union recommendations that the plant close as soon as possible, the announcement could affect Lithuania's chances of joining the EU in the next wave of accessions.

"Lithuania has its own arguments for not closing the second block in 2009, the year that has been suggested to us, and seeking the postponement of this term. This means it could continue to run until 2012 or 2015," Gentvilas told the Baltic News Service.

The minister said he had made his position clear to European Commission officials.

"Lithuania will adopt a decision we consider rational and necessary, and not one suggested by somebody," Gentvilas said.

In the opinion of the European Commission, the second reactor block of the Ignalina nuclear power plant should be closed down by 2009.

The closure of the first reactor block of the plant is scheduled for 2005 and international donors have already donated over 200 million euros ($181.82 million) for the event.

However, Lithuania has not yet taken a decision on the fate of the second reactor block, which was to be made with the preparation of a new national energy strategy. Lithuania is planning to draft the new energy strategy in 2004, while the European Commission is urging it to make a decision on the second block's closure earlier.

Asked whether Lithuania would ignore any further recommendations by the EU on the closure of the nuclear power plant, Gentvilas said, "certainly not."

"I am approving one recommendation immediately - the recommendation to set a precise date for the second block's closure in 2002. Which means that we are already acting on the EU's recommendations," he said.

Gentvilas made it clear that Lithuania and the EU had not yet started talks on the energy chapter.

"The talks are planned to last a year at least. So during the talks we must also take into account the arguments made by others."

The Ignalina nuclear power plant produces over 70 percent of Lithuania's electricity, making it one of the most nuclear-dependent nations in the world.

The West considers Ignalina's two Soviet-made RBMK-type reactors operating in the plant to be generally unsafe. These are the same type of reactors as the one that exploded at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986.

There were numerous media reports and events marking the 15th anniversary of Chernobyl in different countries of the world last week. But in Lithuania there was little evidence anyone remembered.

Britain's Financial Times daily reported on April 27 that there is virtually no chance the European Union will soften its stance toward the Ignalina issue, and that Russia's opinion that the two Soviet-built reactors could operate for at least 20 more years will certainly not change it.

"Lithuania is preparing for the EU. The Chernobyl-style reactor must close, says the EU, but the question is when," writes the daily. "A huge Soviet nuclear power station has to go as a condition for EU membership, but the Russians and some Lithuanians want it to keep producing cheap electricity to avoid a power vacuum."

According to the Financial Times, Chernobyl shattered whatever confidence western public opinion had in the safety and reliability of Soviet nuclear power plants.

Even the Soviet regime under President Mikhail Gorbachev recognized the inherent flaws of the RBMK design by halting construction of the third block at Ignalina in the immediate wake of the Chernobyl disaster.

The first two 1300MW capacity reactor blocks currently provide more than 80 percent of Lithuania's domestic needs and a profitable surplus for export.

"Although the water-cooled, graphite moderated RBMK plant has functioned well with only a few minor accidents, it was never able to fulfill its original task. This was to supply cheap and abundant energy to the power-hungry, Soviet-style industries of all three Baltic states as well as neighboring Kaliningrad and Belarus," the Financial Times said.

A recent EU-financed study by nuclear experts from France, Germany and Scandinavia estimated closure costs at around $900 million. But Lithuanian experts calculate the total cost as high as $2.3 billion spread over 40 years, the daily quotes Rimantas Vaitkus, Lithuanian economy vice minister in charge of Ignalina and the privatization of the energy sector.

Furthermore, according to the newspaper, there is still no plan for the long-term storage of spent fuel and other highly radioactive waste.

A recent high-level Russian delegation indicated Russia's unhappiness with the EU-promoted closure of Igna-lina and offered to buy surplus energy, albeit at a price linked to Russia's uneconomically low domestic tariff.

According to the Financial Times, the Russian side also argued that closure of a cheap power source such as Ignalina with a potential life of 20 years was madness.

Viktor Shevaldin, the genial Russian-born general director of Ignalina, maintains that decommis-sioning the plant could take longer than some people expect.

While accepting that the EU will not change its mind on closing Ignalina he argues that with Europe-wide power shortages likely in the years ahead, the EU should consider building a new Western-designed nuclear station at Ignalina to supply the proposed Baltic power grid with cheap energy.

"A 1000MW Western plant would cost around $1.2 billion in Western Europe but could be built for around $800 million here using existing infrastructure and our skilled labor force," he stated.

Lithuania has made it clear it will close the first power unit by 2005 and decide in 2004 with regard to the shutdown of the second one, currently penciled in for 2009.