Lithuania's new energy quandary

IGNALINA, Lithuania — At an hour before midnight, the last reactor went quiet.

On Dec. 31, the second and final unit of the Ignalina nuclear power plant — a hulking structure in Lithuania’s northeastern forests next to the Latvian border — was shut down, ending 26 years of service and opening a new era of uncertain energy supply for this small Baltic state.

The closure of Ignalina was part of the conditions Lithuania agreed to when it joined the European Union in 2004. The plant was originally built to supply the northwestern portion of the Soviet Union and it was the last surviving plant outside Russia with a RBMK model reactor, which stands for “reaktor bolshoy moshchnosti kanalniy” (high power channel-type reactor). This is similar to the graphite-modulated reactor that blew up at the Chernobyl facility in Ukraine in 1986.

There are differences. Technically, Ignalina’s reactors are not precisely like the one that blew up in Chernobyl. Plus, the accident there was caused by human error when technicians — incredibly — shut down all safety systems and then simulated an emergency situation. The Lithuanians’ safety systems, on the other hand, had undergone extensive (and expensive) upgrades in past years, and their record of minor incidents is one of the world’s lowest, government officials say.

But Brussels looked at Ignalina differently. Ignalina lacked key structures that would further decrease its risk, EU officials said. The EU had inherited a Chernobyl-type reactor, full stop. It had to be closed down.

“It’s not safe,” Kestutis Sadauskas, the EU’s head of commission in Vilnius, said flatly, adding that the facility needs a second “containment sarcophagus” which would provide a second firewall in case of an accident. 

Nevertheless, the decommissioning created a mass of complications — and angst — for the Lithuanians, not the least being the question of where Lithuania will now obtain its electricity. 

Ignalina produced between 70 and 80 percent of the country’s energy needs. Thanks to it, Lithuania — a nation of 3.5 million without any natural resources of its own, wedged between Poland, Belarus, Latvia and the Russian territory of Kaliningrad — had been energy independent. Now it must look to its neighbors for supplies. What is worrying to some Lithuanians is that Russia, the country’s former political master, will hold the majority of the strings to the country’s energy future for the short and perhaps medium-term.

Lithuania will now produce at least 65 percent of is electricity at the Lietuvos Elektrine plant. That is the minimum, and the figure could rise. Russia will initially supply all the gas needed for the facility. Electricity will also be imported from neighboring countries, but this too may be Russian in origin. 

The risks are obvious to anyone living in the former Soviet sphere: Moscow often uses its oil and gas supplies as a cudgel to punish or reward its former satellites. Lithuanian officials say that they foresee no difficulties in working with the Kremlin, but the danger of placing almost all of their eggs in one energy basket is still a consideration. The lessons of Ukraine, where Russia cut off supplies because of a pricing dispute, loom large. 

So far, however, there is no need to worry. The country will suffer no shortfall in electricity production. Officials also say that they hope the market will help mitigate any liabilities: If Russia raises its gas prices, they can import more electricity, or import fuel oil — though that solution would be more expensive and less environmental friendly. In any case, they add, they did not really have a choice whether or not to close Ignalina. 

“The official position and my own is that politically, we are already committed to closing the plant — so it should be done,” said Zygimantas Vaiciunas, head of the strategic planning division for the Lithuanian Energy Ministry. 

Vaiciunas says that, as with any nuclear power plant, Ignalina had to be closed sooner or later. If they attempted to prolong the life of the facility by another few years, as many politicians were calling for, Lithuania risked missing out on a large part of the monies the EU was offering to aid the decommissioning — some $1.2 billion dollars so far.

The costs – both financial and social – will go even beyond this figure, however. The full closing of the plant should last until 2029 and carry a $3 billion price tag — including removing all the nuclear materials. The Vilnius government will have to shoulder some of this amount.

Lithuania at the same time is one of the countries worst hit by the world economic crisis. Its economy shrank by 18 percent in 2009 by some estimates. Ignalina’s disappearance will translate into lost business and jobs in the local economy, and a 30 percent hike in household electricity prices. The plant also produced electricity for export, which constituted by some measurements 1 percent of the country’s total gross domestic product.

But the benefits potentially outweigh the drawbacks, officials say. Aside from the removal of an environmental hazard, Ignalina’s closure will force Lithuania to modernize its energy grid. Integration with its Baltic and Scandinavian neighbors will receive a push, and electrical connections are being planned to Poland and Sweden. A new, state-of-the-art nuclear power plant is also in the works. 

These projects, however, are years away from realization, or have been seriously delayed. In the near future, Lithuania’s gas consumption, and therefore dependence on Russia, will probably increase. But Sadauskas, the EU commission head, sees ultimately a society that may rival Sweden in its eco-friendliness and use of clean forms of energy.

“This is a golden opportunity to leapfrog into a post-modern society,” he said. “The Swedes use all renewables and nuclear energy. They couldn't care less about Russian gas.”