Monday, December 28, 2009

Lithuania Shuts Down Chernobyl-Type Reactor

Believe it or not, the type of reactor once found in the nuclear house of horrors, Chernobyl, is still churning out power in Europe.  But the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithunia, which provides 70 percent of the power of that small Baltic state, is living on borrowed time.  Under an agreement with the EU, Lithuania will pull the switch on Ignalina on New Year's eve.  While Europe will be rid of one more dangerous nuclear site, Lithuania is stuck with a problem.  Where to get the power Ignalina provided in bunches.

Lithuania agreed to shut down Ignalina when it was courting membership in the EU in the 1990s. 

Brussels said it wanted to cut the risk of a Chernobyl repeat when radioactive material blanketed most of Europe after the disaster in Ukraine in 1986. 

What makes Ignalina most troubling is that it houses the same reactor type once found at Chernobyl - RBMK reactors.  This type of reactor was never exported outside the former Soviet Union.

In an exclusive interview with the Informant, Steve Thomas, a professor of Energy Policy at England's University of Greenwich notes even the West's 'superior' reactors have their drawbacks.

"For example, the UK Magnox plants of which there were 11, now only 2 left have no proper pressure containment (one of the problems with RBMKs) but these were not closed down prematurely."

Here's a cool, albeit depressing, little recap of the Chernobyl apocalypse.

Chernobyl 20 Years Later - Watch the best video clips here

However, Lithuanians see things differently.  The 3,000 workers at the plant, built 26 years ago, say the reactor has been upgraded to meet Western standards. 

Then there is the issue of national pride.  Ignalina has meant "energy independence" and is therefore viewed as a "national treasure" as this Deutche Welle report makes clear. 

So, when Ignalina goes, so does energy independence.

By bits and pieces, Lithuania plans to make up the energy shortfall, importing electricity from Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Ukraine and Russia.

Getting more energy from old overlord Russia is a sensitive one for the Lithuanians. 

Plus, Vilnius is not too happy with Russia building a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany. 

Fueled by anger on that issue, it was the Lithuanians along with other east Europeans who held up EU-Russia talks on a strategic partnership.

Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and even Moscow oft-ally Belarus fear the Kremlin by sidestepping their territory will gain another leverage in the so-called energy wars. 

Thomas tells the Informant that politics is being played on all sides. 

"There are still 11 RBMKs in operation in Russia (Leningrad which supplies a large amount of power to Finland, Smolensk and Kursk and one is said to be still under construction at Kursk although I doubt it is. These are all of an earlier design generation than Ignalina so possibly not as safe and not significantly further from Europe than Ignalina. Of course we would not dare tell Russia to close these plants."

Thomas understands why Lithuania would want to play hardball with Brussels over Ignalina.

"From the Lithuania side, I understand their fear of dependence on Russia (I suspect their maintenance and parts for Ignalina come from Russia) and I understand they need to bargain as hard as they can to get as much as they can for closing Ignalina," Thomas writes. 

Thomas says Brussels bureaucrats are eager to preen over their concern for nuclear safety.

"From the EU side, I am sure there is some grandstanding to be seen to be forcing the closure of 'unsafe' plants built by the evil empire."
But those issues may pale in comparison to what Lithuania faces short term. 

To fund the shutdown, Lithuania will tack on an eye-popping 30 percent hike in household power prices in 2010.  

The decommissioning cost is estimated at 8.6 litas and the process will take about 25 years.

This at a time with Lithuania, like all of eastern Europe, trying to fight its way out of the global economic slowdown.  Eastern Europe, still struggling to shrug off decades of communism, has been especially hard hit.  Latvia is bankrupt. Ukraine's economy is in a tailspin after finally showing signs of life.  And, Lithuania?  It only faces an economic contraction of 18 percent for 2009.

The country's central bank Reuters explained to Reuters the bigger impact of the plant's closure on the economy.

"A 30 percent hike in electricity prices will slash gross domestic product by one percentage point and will increase inflation by almost one percentage point," said Raimondas Kuodis, the central bank's chief economist.

Lithuania's opposition made a last-gasp effort to save Ignalina, at least for a few more years.

But Brussels is having none of that. 

A former Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas told Reuters that Brussels is making a big mistake.

"The European Commission does not fully apprehend the situation of the Baltic states, and think that electricity imports from Russia is not a problem," he said. "They don't share the same historical experience."

With the TV camera's rolling, Ignalina's last remaining reactor is due to go off line at 11 pm New Year's Eve. 
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