Lithuania pushes for new atomic plant

  • 2003-04-24
  • Arturas Racas

As Lithuania prepares to shut down its controversial Soviet-built Ignalina nuclear power plant to comply with EU demands, plans are in the air to build a new plant in its place.

President Rolandas Paksas said in a recent interview he hoped a decision to build a new plant would be taken by 2005, when Lithuania closes the first of Ignalina's two 1300-megawatt reactors.

"I was, am and shall be saying that Lithuania could remain a nuclear state, and I do personally believe that this is possible," Paksas said. "I think that this decision could be taken by 2005 — the time when the first reactor at Ignalina has to be stopped."

At the EU's insistence Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, agreed to shut down the plant completely by 2009 in tough negotiations on membership of the bloc it is on course to join on May 1, 2004.

The EU cited worries about safety at the plant, which is similar to the one which exploded in 1986 at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in the world's worst civil nuclear disaster.

In return the EU has promised to help meet the closure bill, estimated at 2 billion to 3 billion euros over 30 years, and has already allocated 200 million euros to prepare decommissioning of the first reactor.

With Ignalina producing about 75 percent of Lithuania's energy — vying with France for top position in the world for nuclear power as a percentage of the country's energy — many are asking what will replace it.

Paksas said he hoped the EU would help Lithuania build a new modern nuclear facility. He said European Commission President Romano Prodi and Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen had been open to the idea at recent talks.

The issue is expected to be raised again when Verheugen visits Lithuania this week, ahead of a May 10-11 referendum on EU membership.

"Already next year Lithuania will become a member of the EU family, which needs a lot of clean energy. Why can this energy not be produced here?" Paksas said.

He said the site of the current Ignalina plant would be most appropriate as much of the infrastructure will already be there.

His idea is backed by management of the Ignalina plant, who see a new plant as a way of dealing with problems raised by the closure, such as job losses among Ignalina's staff of about 4,500.

"Under such a project we could save about 20-25 percent of costs on already existing infrastructure, some of our staff after training could work in the plant; we should solve many of the social problems which will appear after Ignalina's closure," Ignalina's general manager Viktoras Sevaldinas said.

However, all seem to agree that Lithuania could not build a nuclear power plant on its own, a finding underlined in a study by the International Nuclear Energy Agency and Lithuanian energy specialists.

"The result of the study is very clear — a new nuclear plant is the most expensive means to replace Ignalina," Jurgis Vilemas, head of the Lithuanian Energy Institute said.

That is where Lithuania's Baltic neighbors Estonia and Latvia could come in.

Vilemas said the three Baltic states, the INEA and the United States planned to launch a study into the idea of a joint project.

"If we think about the three Baltic states, a future increase in the demand of energy and the possibility to transport it to Europe, then everything looks much more attractive," he said.

The idea of building a nuclear power plant to meet the energy needs of the three Baltic states is already being considered in Estonia and Latvia.

Gunar Okk, board chairman of Estonian electricity supplier Eesti Energia, recently said Estonia should consider helping finance construction of a new plant in Lithuania.