- Associated Press - Sunday, November 25, 2012

VISAGINAS, Lithuania — The parking lot outside the atomic power plant is weedy and potholed. Bus stops that once teemed with hundreds of workers are eerily empty.

Yet the stillness at Ignalina, a Lithuanian nuclear plant built in the 1980s Soviet era, belies an unsettling fact: There is still nuclear fuel inside one of its two reactors, three years after it was shut due to safety concerns.

A temporary storage facility for spent fuel and radioactive waste is four years behind schedule, creating a money drain at a time when the 27-nation European Union grapples with a crippling economic crisis.

States don’t need EU permission to build nuclear plants, but they need to abide by its safety rules, and the problems at Ignalina have provoked threats from the EU to cut the funding promised for dismantling it.

That raises concerns that the facility will be around for years, possibly decades, longer than planned.

Ignalina is turning out to be a hard lesson for Europe: It’s one thing to kill a nuclear power station; getting rid of the remains is another headache entirely.

Many experts downplay safety risks in delays to dismantling Ignalina and two other communist-era plants in Slovakia and Bulgaria, but that is little comfort to nearby residents who fear risks of a radioactive leak will only grow with time.

Last year’s calamity at the Fukushima power station triggered by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami refocused global attention on nuclear technology’s vulnerability 25 years after the meltdown at Chernobyl in Ukraine. That Soviet-built plant is similar to Ignalina.

Germany, which has one of the world’s most advanced atomic energy industries, last year decided the dangers are too great and announced it would go nuclear-free by 2022.

Target for terrorists, smugglers

Ignalina’s delays and massive cost overruns offer a cautionary tale for the EU, which aims to dismantle dozens of nuclear facilities over the next two decades.

In the poor nations of Eastern Europe, some fear offline nuclear reactors left in limbo pose extraordinary risks.

Lithuania cannot continue the decommissioning process for an unlimited period and risk creating another Chernobyl in the middle of Europe,” said Zigmantas Balcytis, a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament.

A major nuclear disaster is much less likely in a closed plant than in a live one. The Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency says an offline plant contains only one-thousandth of the radioactive material of one in operation.

Still, there are dangers of smaller releases of radioactivity into the air or soil, while workers face exposure to lethal doses.

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