Vital atomic power station’s future in balance

A vote in Lithuania on whether to close Ignalina nuclear power plant in eastern Lithuania has failed to meet the 50 per cent threshold. It's the same type of plant as Chernobyl and is considered to be dangerous.

The EU said it had to be shut by 2009 as one of the conditions of the country's membership but most Lithuanians are against closing it down as it supplies about 70 per cent of the country's electricity, as well as many jobs.

The Ignalina atomic power plant was built during the Soviet era and it used to provide jobs for 3,000 locals.

Lithuania agreed to shut the plant down by the end of 2009 when it joined the European Union four years ago.

A key concern for the EU is that Ignalina has the same type of reactor as Ukraine’s disaster-hit Chernobyl but the plant’s director says safety is no longer an issue.

“The whole world was scared after Chernobyl’s accident and we have lived in its shadow for years but we’ve had safety upgrades, we've modernised the unit and we could safely work for years,” said Viktor Shevaldin, Ignalina’s director.

Ignalina is the heart of Lithuania’s power-generation and there are fears here that its closure could force Lithuania to rely on foreign energy and send electricity prices rocketing.

The government wants to push the deadline back to 2012 and has held a referendum asking people if they want to keep the plant open until an alternative energy source is in place.

Lithuanians are sure that they are not ready for any hikes in energy prices and would prefer to have the plant working for as long as it can. The closure of the atomic plant would mean no electricity for the whole country.

Though the referendum was non-binding, Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas made no secret of the fact that he voted against the closure.

Even the President who had insisted that Lithuania should stick to its EU promise made a U-turn.

“I have no doubts now that Lithuania would not be able to live without nuclear energy in the future. I voted for the delay,” confessed Valdas Adamkus, Lithuanian president.

Future hopes are pinned on a new nuclear power plant that Lithuania plans to build together with its Baltic neighbours and Poland, but that may not come online until 2020.

“It has nothing to do with our commitment to the European Union, it has to do with the government’s impotence in recent years. They did nothing,” said Arturas Rachas, Editor-in-Chief of the Baltic News Service.

While Lithuania wants to negotiate with Brussels, the EU says delay is not an option. That is why Lithuanians who work at the atomic power plant believe that the government’s extension plans are more talk than action and the agreement with Brussels cannot be undone, so everyone at Ignalina is getting ready for closure at the end of 2009.