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22 Mar, 2010 06:20

Lithuania gets electric shock after nuclear plant closed

The closure of Lithuania’s soviet-built Ignalina nuclear power plant last year has devastated the local population and its economy as energy bills have soared.

Most of those who were working at the station and relied on it for work have been unable to find other jobs.

Today, many of them feel the shutdown of the plant, in the midst of a global downturn, was too high a price to pay for EU membership.

Three thousand people, a tenth of the population of the Lithuanian town of Visaginas where the plant’s employees live, conducted a rally recently in which they booed the mayor. They shouted slogans against the loss of jobs and skyrocketing utilities prices.

The reason for their plight is all due to the shutdown of the town's main employer, the Ignalina Nuclear Power Station, one of the biggest in Europe, at the end of last year.

The EU, however, deemed its reactor, which is identical in design to Chernobyl's, too dangerous.

Lithuanian power lines used to carry enough electricity not only for the whole country, but also to export cheap electricity to its neighbours. That has changed dramatically.

Electricity prices rose by 20%, hot water has increased twofold, and heating by five.

Stepan Volchanov worked at the station for 15 years. Now, he has to seek temporary contracts, traveling throughout Europe for work a few weeks at a time.

“It's a double whammy – prices rising and income falling,” said Stepan Volchanov. “People are calling the energy bill a death notice. We blame the authorities for just abandoning us.”

The town of Visaginas was constructed especially to house the plant workers.

Now, local businesses are shutting down, as a result of the station closure. Schools are also emptying, because young parents are leaving with their children. Yet the town's embattled mayor urges calm.

“You can try to blame everyone for this situation. The central government. Us,” pleaded Visaginas Mayor Vitautas Rackaukas. “You can say the people themselves have known about the closure for a while but did nothing. Someone always believes the sky is falling, but there is a future for Visaginas.”

At the moment people are still working at the plant, disposing of the old station's radioactive waste, but the government has promised a new one will be built.

“The new station is the lifeline for this city. If only it is commissioned, the money will start pouring in, and these people will be needed again,” shared Vladimir Drannik, Head of Independent Union party.

Still without a blueprint or a construction date, the prospects for a new power plant in the midst of an economic crisis are grim. And until then, social unrest will likely continue.