- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

VISAGINAS, Lithuania

To the European Union, Lithuania’s Soviet-built nuclear power plant is a gigantic safety hazard that needs finally to shut down this New Year’s Eve. To Lithuanians, however, the twin concrete reactor blocks of the Ignalina plant, rising amid lakes and oak forests near the country’s eastern border, have been a symbol of energy independence since the Baltic country regained its freedom in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed.

That is why the European Union-ordered shutdown of the plant’s last working reactor — considered too similar to the one that exploded at Chernobyl in 1986 — is making Lithuanians uneasy. They now face the prospect of importing energy from Russia, considered an unreliable energy partner by many after its state-owned gas company shut off supplies through Ukraine last year and in 2006 over price disputes.

Lithuania will wake up Jan. 1 with 40 percent less generating capacity. The gap has set off a race to build new, safer nuclear plants to supply electricity to the Baltics and Eastern Europe, a race Moscow is trying mightily to win.

On top of that, Lithuanians will pay more for electricity at a time when their economy is in a deep recession.

“We’ll have to pay two or three times more for energy, and our competitiveness in European markets will be damaged,” said Bronislovas Lubys, chief executive officer of the Achema Group, a chemical consortium.

In the eastern town of Visaginas, where the Ignalia plant is located, the mood is grim. About 80 percent of the town’s residents are Russian speakers who moved there in the 1980s to build the hulking twin concrete reactor blocks.

“Lithuania’s economy and energy industry are not prepared to live without a nuclear power plant,” plant chief Viktor Shevaldin told the Associated Press. “Prices for consumers will increase starting in 2010, and this will undoubtedly affect the population’s standard of living, industry and the economy as a whole.”

The shutdown comes even as the European Union seeks more energy independence from Russia, though it refused Lithuanian efforts to delay the Ignalina shutdown.

The European Union wanted the 1980s plant shut down as a condition of EU membership because the two RBMK-1500 model reactors are too similar to the RBMK-1000 version that exploded at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, casting a radioactive cloud over Europe. Ignalina’s first reactor was shut down in 2004, and the second will stop sending power to the grid an hour before midnight Dec. 31, although it will take years to complete the decomissioning process, including building final storage for the spent fuel.

Come Jan. 1, the country will cover the shortfall by buying kilowatts on the open market from Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. By 2013, it hopes to build a new natural-gas power plant, but doing so would fall short of meeting its energy needs.

Russia is ready to fill the gap and is gearing up to build a two-reactor nuclear plant just 10 miles from the Lithuanian border in Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad, wedged between Poland and Lithuania.

The planned $5 billion Baltic Nuclear Power Plant, to be built near the town of Sovetsk, would be overkill for Kaliningrad, a region of 1 million people whose future energy needs are already taken care of by a planned gas-fired power plant to be built by 2012.

“We’ll export all the output from the nuclear power plant … we’ve never concealed that fact,” Kaliningrad’s regional governor, Georgy Boos, said. “By 2016, when we launch the first reactor, there will be a huge energy shortage” throughout the Baltic Sea region.

To assuage European fears about reliance on Russian kilowatts, Russia is offering foreign investors a minority stake in the new plant.

The problem is that Lithuania is essentially courting the same pool of investors for its own planned new plant in Visaginas.

Because Lithuania still functions on the old Soviet power grid, it is isolated from Europe’s, though the European Union is working over the long term on building connections to change that.

Lithuania is pinning its hopes on two possible alternatives: an $864 million underwater power cable with Sweden, and a $1.58 billion grid connection between Alytus, Lithuania and Elk in northern Poland.

But the link with Sweden will require eight years, and the one with Poland a decade, according to a new EU study. This is why Ignalina plant boss Mr. Shevaldin thinks Lithuania’s chances of finding investors “aren’t very good.”

“Russia has the advantage since it already knows what kind of reactor it will build. In this sense they’ll build their station quicker than Lithuania,” said Mr. Shevaldin, a native Russian who moved to Lithuania in the 1980s.

Belarus is also eager to join the competition and have Russia’s state nuclear company, Rosatom, build Belarus’ first nuclear plant, which would go up not far across the border from the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Russia has expressed willingness not only to build the plant but also to help with finance.

Still, the Russian plans face obstacles. There are no grid connections between Poland and Kaliningrad, and those between Kaliningrad and Lithuania will need to be upgraded. Given their distrust of Russia, the Poles and Lithuanians might not cooperate.

With the three nuclear plants planned in the same region, things could get crowded.

“The construction of a nuclear power plant is very expensive - the economic costs of waste disposal and environmental risks are huge,” said energy specialist Claudia Kemfert at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. “So I do not believe that all the planned projects will be realized because of economic costs. I could imagine that one of the three will be.”

The Russians have fast-tracked the Kaliningrad project, squeezing four to seven years of environmental impact studies and licensing into less than two years.

Public opinion in Kaliningrad is against the project, said Alexandra Koroleva, who heads the region’s branch of Eco-Defense, an environmental group opposed to nuclear energy. “There’s a lot of people who moved here from Chernobyl, so you’ll rarely meet someone on the street who’ll say they want an atomic power plant,” she said.

“I hope I’m not around when it begins operating,” said resident Ivan Trutnev, 72. “I know they’ve got this advanced technology nowadays, but if one thing goes wrong, it’ll all be over.”

• Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed to this report.

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