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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Vilnius frets as EU prepares to cut off power

Here comes the original article on Lithuania from Financial Times mentioned in my previous post.

What one god gives, another takes away. Such is the dry humour with which Lithuanians greeted the imminent closure of the Ignalina nuclear power station, a featureless hulk rising from the snowy badlands of the frontier with Belarus and Latvia.

The god that gave Lithuania the Ignalina plant was the Soviet Union. "Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country!" Vladimir Lenin once proclaimed.

The god shutting down Ignalina is the European Union, which, as a condition of Lithuania's admission to the bloc in 2004, insisted on its closure.

To anyone who visited a Soviet factory or office in the 1980s, it appears as if time has stood still at Ignalina, with its shoddy paintwork, bad wiring, missing lights, elaborate security procedures, brusque staff and pungent, disinfected smell.

But as the clock ticks towards the shutdown date of December 31, 2009, the prospect of its closure is being greeted with incomprehension and anxiety in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital.

Ignalina provides 70 per cent of Lithuania's electricity, and when it shuts down the nation will have nowhere to turn for its energy supplies except Russia - the very country that, in its Soviet guise, annexed Lithuania in the 1940s, deported tens of thousands of its people to Siberia, and did not permit the nation's independence until the Soviet Union itself fell apart in 1991.

"We're becoming an energy-isolated island. I'd even call it a Russian monopoly," says Valdas Adamkus, Lithuania's president. "We don't understand the real reason why the EU insisted on closing the Ignalina plant, which is very safe operationally. Finland is building new nuclear power units, and Lithuania is being forced to close something that's not broken. If you ask if it's unfair or not, I don't believe it is fair."

For the European Commission, it is a closed case. Memories of the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Soviet Ukraine, the world's worst nuclear disaster, were fresh in the mind when the Commission negotiated EU entry terms for former communist countries in central and eastern Europe. Moreover, energy was cheap in Europe back then.

Soviet-designed nuclear reactors were unwanted and, it seemed, unnecessary. To make matters worse, Ignalina was a Chernobyl-type plant.

But in Ignalina the sense of outrage and injustice is intense. The plant's first reactor was shut in 2004 after 21 years. Sweden forked out millions of euros to upgrade the safety systems of the second reactor, which, according to senior staff, could carry on for another 20 years if the appropriate maintenance work were done in 2012.

"The reactor is 1.5 times more powerful than Chernobyl and 100 times safer," says Mikhail Demchenko, deputy head of the Lithuanian state nuclear power inspectorate.

Adding to the bitterness is the fact that 80 per cent of Ignalina's 3,000 staff are ethnic Russians. In fact, Ignalina has the highest density of ethnic Russians anywhere in Lithuania, of whose 3.6m people only 6.3 per cent are Russian.

When the plant closes next year, up to 2,000 staff will lose their jobs. Some will stay to decommission the two reactors, although that may be easier said than done. At present, there are not enough casks to store the spent nuclear fuel.

"Originally, in the Soviet period, it was planned to put the spent fuel somewhere in Siberia. Now it is a problem for Lithuania," says one Ignalina manager.

For the Russians facing redundancy, employment prospects are bleak. Many do not speak fluent Lithuanian, and the country is hurtling into recession.

Chief defender of the workers at Ignalina is Viktor Shevaldin, an ethnic Russian and the plant's director-general for the past 17 years. Animated, silver-haired, tie knotted loosely below unbuttoned collar, Mr Shevaldin tells it straight, as only a Russian from the Soviet era can: "If they let me do the negotiating in Brussels, this plant would stay open. But one side won't take me there, and the other side doesn't want me there."

Mr Shevaldin says Russia still operates 11 reactors like those at Ignalina and all have been successfully modernised. Ignalina's operators, he says, also still co-operate closely with Russians on safety issues.

But Mr Shevaldin is no representative of Russian interests in disguise. "I once had an offer to leave here to manage a Russian plant. I refused. Ya - litovsky patriot! " he declares in Russian ("I am a Lithuanian patriot!").

(Source: Financial Times)

1 comment:

Alexandra Prokopenko said...

My opinion - a typical poor Western journalistic work. The author knows almost nothing about the history of Lithuania and certainly nothing about Chernobyl (except from the stereotypes he has in his head from other media articles so common in the West). Yes, stereotypes. Sticking out the Ignalina director-general's "Russianness", the poor look of the plant and so on. Again, there is only one side of the story here.