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Lithuania's new energy quandary

The closure of Lithuania's nuclear power plant leaves the small EU country dependent on Russia — for now.

The exterior of the Ignalina nuclear power plantnear Visaginas, Lithuania, Dec. 4, 2009. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

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.