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31 Dec, 2009 06:49

News Year’s “gift”: Lithuania closes its nuke plant causing massive lay-offs

Lithuania is to shut its only nuclear power plant for good by midnight Friday - a condition of its European Union membership five years ago.

The shutdown of the outdated Ignalina facility means a rather cheerless New Year for over 2,000 workers facing hard times – with a replacement plant a long way off.

On December 31, the Ignalina nuclear plant will deliver its last watt of electricity.

Dubbed unsafe due to its Chernobyl-style safety system, its shutdown was a key condition for Lithuania's entry into the European Union.

Few across Europe will mourn the closure of an old Soviet-designed nuclear plant, but the consequences for the Lithuanian economy will be severe, and a local community faces devastation.

Up to now, the plant daily produced more electricity than Lithuania's entire 3.5 million-strong population could consume.

”Lithuania will have to import energy, where it exported it before. This station could potentially have worked productively for decades,” said the director of Ignalina power plant, Viktor Shevaldin.

Although decommissioning Ignalina will take several years, all of the station's two and a half thousand employees’ jobs will be phased out.

Nearby Visaginas is under threat of becoming a ghost town. When the plant was built in the 1970s, the whole city was erected just to service it. Engineers, builders and technicians came from all over the Soviet Union.

A nuclear technician, Vitaliy Ratushny, was one of them. He says that he does not see any other options other than leaving the town.

“Like the others here, I will have to leave this place simply to find a new job,” he said. “Here there is nothing for atomic scientists. In fact, no new industries are opening around here at all.”

However, the Lithuanian government has an ambitious plan to build a brand-new nuclear plant just a few miles away from the old site. The project will cost billions, yet at the moment there is no key investor, blueprint or construction date.

The authorities, however, remain optimistic.

“I concede that we are paying a high price for EU membership, but we have gained much more from it. And I believe that soon enough we will have a new plant,” said a chairman of Nuclear Energy Commission Rokas Zhilinskas.

But in the midst of one of the most severe economic crises in the entire world, and forced to import expensive electricity from abroad, Lithuania may yet have fond memories of its defunct nuclear dinosaur.