On December 31, Lithuania shut down the first of two Soviet-era nuclear reactors at the Ignalina nuclear power plant and began the decommissioning process. The European Union required the closure of Unit One by December 2004 and of Unit Two by December 2009, as part of the conditions for Lithuania’s accession to the EU.
Ignalina is the only nuclear power plant in the three Baltic states, and Lithuania is among Europe’s most nuclear-dependent countries for electricity generation. Ignalina’s two RBMK-type reactors had been connected to the grid in 1983 and 1987, respectively. They are of the same type that malfunctioned at Chernobyl in Ukraine, where one reactor’s disastrous explosion in 1986 and incidents at the other reactors over the years led to the plant’s closure. Consequently, the international community began to view Lithuania’s facility as “Chernobyl-type” reactors.
The EU determined that Ignalina’s reactors posed unacceptable safety risks and demanded their decommissioning. Many in Lithuania disputed that judgment, and in fact the two reactors had operated without incident over the years. In view of longer-term risks, however, Lithuania had to commit itself during the pre-accession negotiations to satisfy the EU’s condition, and obtained a slight extension of the timetable for closure. Unit One operated at full capacity until the last days in 2004, and Unit Two is expected to do so to until its final days as well.
The nuclear plant accounted for 80% of Lithuania’s power output, and it made Lithuania into a major exporter of electrical power to neighboring countries. It generated more than 15 billion kilowatts per hour of electricity per year in 2003 and 2004, selling some 14 billion kilowatts per hour annually, and exporting one-half of its output to Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, and Kaliningrad. One power bloc operated entirely for export, while the other was dedicated to meeting internal requirements.
Thus, Ignalina’s phase-out for safety reasons, to be accompanied by the phase-out of oil-shale-based power generating plants in Estonia for ecological reasons, will increasingly complicate the Baltic energy picture in the years immediately ahead.
The first reactor’s shutdown brings an immediate, dramatic reduction in Lithuania’s electricity exports. The shutdown of the second will seriously reduce Lithuania’s domestic power-generation capacity. Self-sufficiency is only guaranteed until 2009, at which point shrinking output and growing internal demand for energy will necessitate imports of electricity. Measures to increase output at the three main thermal power plants (Vilnius, Kaunas, Elektrenai) are planned, but cannot offset the loss of Ignalina’s generating capacity.
In anticipation of these consequences, some Lithuanian officials and politicians occasionally entertained second thoughts about giving up the nuclear power plant. Its general manager, Viktor Shevaldin, and other experts insist to this day that the plant could operate safely and continuously for another 20 years. Economics Minister and business tycoon Viktor Uspaskikh — in opposition until very recently — portrayed the plant’s closure as a “folly” that turns the country from an exporter into an importer of high-priced energy, raising production costs and consumer prices. Nevertheless, the prospect of EU accession helped maintain Lithuania’s political consensus behind the commitment to phase out the Ignalina plant on schedule.
For its part, the EU has proceeded ahead of schedule to subsidize the decommissioning process. Brussels granted 240 million euros to Lithuania in 2001-2003 for the preparatory work; approved disbursement of 320 million euros in 2004-2006; and envisages allocating 815 million euros in 2007-2013. Vilnius intends to seek an increase in that funding. The decommissioning process will take many years; for example, nuclear fuel rods in containers are to be removed from each reactor four years after its shutdown. This lengthy process also means that layoffs of the plant’s 3,500-strong workforce can be stretched out over time.
A German consortium is about to start construction of a storage facility for the spent nuclear fuel from Ignalina’s two reactors. This is the first large-scale operation funded by EU countries as part of the decommissioning program. The project is scheduled to run until 2013, at an estimated cost of 100 million euros.
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and other officials propose building a modern, safe nuclear power plant in the country. Preliminary discussions have been held with French, German, and Canadian government officials and companies. However, it would be unrealistic to expect any new power bloc to be completed by 2009, when Ignalina’s second reactor is scheduled to be disconnected from the grid.
(BNS, ELTA, Delfi website, December 27, 2004 – January 7, 2005).