Vol 0, No 23
1 March 1999
T H E A M B E R C O A S T:
Lithuania's Nuclear Dilemma
Lithuania is faced with a difficult problem at this stage of its development: give up its primary power source for a faster road to Brussels or to remain self-sufficient in energy and incur further wrath from the European Commission. In short, Lithuania's nuclear dilemma is the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. The European Commission wants an early shutdown timetable for the plant, but how can the world's most nuclear-dependent country deal with such an ultimatum?
To many in the region and around Europe, the name Ignalina sparks fearful memories of Chornobyl (that's Chernobyl for the Russophiles). Most articles written in the European press focus on one single point: the reactors at Ignalina are of the RBMK-2 model, the same ones that caused the catastrophe in Ukraine over a decade ago. The fear factor over its safety has created a stumbling block on Lithuania's road to EU membership.
But it is not as simple as turning off the switch. As over 85 per cent of electricity produced in Lithuania is generated by Ignalina, the first question to surface would be new sources of electricity. Lithuania is not blessed with natural resources for energy (unlike Estonia and its plentiful oil shale supply), and thus a shutdown of Ignalina would be tantamount to energy dependency. For a developing country that could prove to be a disaster. Lithuania has already experimented with the import of heavy fuel oils and even the environmentally disastrous Orimulsion for its other power plants, but the reliance on such imported fuels could prove to be financially and environmentally catastrophic in the long term.
Lithuania is asking for more funds from international organisations if the plant is to be shut down early. In early February, Economics Minister Vincas Babilius presented the draft energy strategy for the next decade. The plan envisioned two possibilities for Ignalina: early shutdown or no early shutdown. The plan stressed that an early shutdown, scheduled for 2005, would have to be accompanied by funding support from international organisations (such as the EU). The other alternative is to let the two reactors live out their design lifetime, which could include re-channelling and extension of the timetable.
The idea of an early shutdown is not universally welcomed in the developing economy. Some believe that with additional safety fittings and re-channelling, Ignalina's life could be extended beyond its original design, perhaps to as long as 2025. That would be the least expensive route to take, according to many of the plant's supporters. In a surprising public show of support, a November poll by Vilmorus indicated support for Ignalina was at 80 per cent - higher than the 68 per cent in favour of EU entry, according to The Baltic Times.
Another serious challenge to an early shutdown is the liberalisation of the EU energy market. A project is currently developing to connect the Lithuanian and Polish power grids, enabling Lithuania to export the millions of watts of surplus power it produces to the more reliable European market. Currently, this power is being exported to Belarus, which has accrued a debt nearly 90 million US dollars, and an ongoing scandal concerning the deal continues to be played out on the front pages in Lithuania. With the linkage and the conclusive step of energy liberalisation by 2002, Ignalina could generate annually 150 million US dollars in revenues for Lithuania, according to project heads.
The loss of Ignalina just as the energy market in Europe opens up would not only deprive Lithuania of a major source of revenue; it would be spending millions just to keep the lights on at home. The Swedish firm Grufman Reje estimated that an early Ignalina shutdown would cost Lithuania three to four billion US dollars in revenues over two decades.
Whether the EU has made an ultimatum to Lithuania on early shut-down or not (reports are contradictory), this will no doubt remain a major obstacle to Lithuania's dreams of quick EU accession. What began as a safety issue has boiled over into a question of sovereignty.
Some harshly criticise the EU for dictating terms which could easily bankrupt Lithuania, others look at Ignalina as a symbol of Lithuania's self-sufficiency. The loss of the self-sufficiency will result in massive dependency. The incident several weeks ago when crude oil delivery for processing from Russia was halted proves how sensitive such a link would be. Some ultimately fear this would drive Lithuania back into Moscow's energy sphere.
The decision on Ignalina's fate will be the biggest decision to be made in Vilnius since the restoration of independence. But unlike that spirited occasion, whatever Vilnius decides to do in this case, the result could be disastrous for Lithuania.
Mel Huang, 1 March 1999
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