Lithuania shuts down Soviet-era NPP, but being a nuclear-free nation is still under question

The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania was finally shut down for good in the waning hours of the year 2009. But plans to build a new nuclear power facility seem to dampen hopes for a nuclear-free Lithuania.

The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania was finally shut down for good in the waning hours of the year 2009. But plans to build a new nuclear power facility seem to dampen hopes for a nuclear-free Lithuania.

The second, and last, reactor of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) was finally shut down for good at 11:00 PM local time on December 31st, 2009. Lithuania’s Ministry of Energy said in a statement that works involved in the shutdown started at 20:10 PM and were completed according to procedure.

Five years prior to the date, on December 31st, 2004, Lithuania closed Ignalina’s Reactor One: Decommissioning this obsolete and dangerous plant – Ignalina operated reactors of the RBMK design, the same type that were used at Chernobyl – was one of the conditions of the small Baltic nation’s ascension to the European Union.

Ignalina’s reactors, just like all other reactors built and operated in the former USSR, had no protective shells – so-called containment buildings – that serve to prevent radiation from escaping the site during an emergency, meaning that an accident at Ignalina could have led to a release of radionuclides into the environment with all the catastrophic consequences that entails. RBMKs are still operated, meanwhile, at Russia’s Leningrad, Kursk, and Smolensk NPPs. Furthermore, a new RBMK reactor is currently under construction at Kursk.

A suggestion that was floated earlier in Lithuania to go against the shutdown agreement and extend the operational lifespan of Ignalina did not find much support among the population, who gave a ‘no’ vote to the idea in a popular referendum on October 12th last year.

“As decent Europeans, we are ready to meet our obligations to close the Ignalina power plant on time, which is by the end of this day,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius told Reuters UK on December 31st.

Breaking free from mother Russia

Confronted with fears that Lithuania may not be able to do without Ignalina – the facility, located in Visaginas in eastern Lithuania, used to provide an estimated 70 percent of the country’s energy supply – Lithuanian government remained cool-headed about energy prospects down the road.

“There will be no catastrophe after the closure. We are ready to supply as much electricity as needed,” Prime Minister Kubilius told Reuters UK on the day Ignalina was shut down.

President Grybauskaite, meanwhile, said the closing of Ignalina will herald the birth of Lithuania’s energy independence from Russia. “The Lithuanian energy system was and is dependent on Russia, because our energy sources, our supply of gas and power, are tied to that country,” Grybauskaite said, according to media reports.

“Dependence on one country was caused by the old power plant. The issues around it tied Lithuania to Russia,” she said, adding that this was what had stymied Lithuania from developing its own energy based on alternative sources or hooking up with grids operated in fellow EU member states.

This argument is not without merit: Russia was the only supplier of fuel for Ignalina’s Soviet-design reactors. While oil and gas could be obtained from a wide range of operators on the international market, buying nuclear fuel is a whole other song, as only the Russian nuclear empire, Rosatom, could provide the fuel Ignalina could burn.

As the only player on this fuel market, Rosatom also holds the prerogative to set its pricing policy. Additionally, for all kinds of planned repairs, upgrades, and procedures requiring the replacement of the facility’s equipment and materials, Lithuania, again, had to depend on Rosatom’s enterprises. In return for the fuel supplies and services, Lithuania was expected to pay, partly, in power supplies, including to Russia’s Kaliningrad Region – a Russian exclave west of Lithuania. For Lithuania this arrangement meant keeping its energy policies in strict coordination with Russia’s demands, which blocked its energy cooperation prospects with other EU countries.

Furthermore, operating such a heavy-duty energy monster that Ignalina was had stifled Lithuania’s own energy market: It was in no position to allow for the development of renewable sources of energy or upgrading conventional power plants since the nuclear facility supplied enough energy to begin with. This is similar to Russia’s Murmansk Region, where for a long time any attempts to develop wind power were impeded because of the Kola NPP, the culprit responsible for the oversaturated energy market there.

The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania was finally shut down for good in the waning hours of the year 2009. But plans to build a new nuclear power facility seem to dampen hopes for a nuclear-free Lithuania.

The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania was finally shut down for good in the waning hours of the year 2009. But plans to build a new nuclear power facility seem to dampen hopes for a nuclear-free Lithuania.

Yet, Lithuania did not sink back into the Dark Ages the minute Ignalina’s second reactor stopped humming. But the transition will unlikely be completely without pain. Following Ignalina’s closing, Lithuania will – at least for the first several years – have to depend on imported energy to cover around a half of its energy needs, including imports from Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus. Those bridges it never had the chance to build with Western electricity providers will then become another option as it negotiates plugging into Swedish and Polish grids. This challenging path to energy self-reliance was once trodden by Italy, which closed all of its nuclear power plants following a popular referendum in 1988 and had to manage on energy imports until it could avail itself of more reliable solutions.

Increasing the capacity and efficiency of existing thermal power plants will also help bring Lithuania on a steadier energy footing. The 1,800-megawatt eight-unit Elektrenai plant, fired with natural gas and other fossil fuels, is currently only working at 20 percent of capacity, but is set to take the bulk of the energy production burden now that Ignalina’s closed, with expectations that it will raise its share in the country’s energy generation balance to up to 70 percent. Similar prospects are tied to less powerful electricity generating sites near Kaunas, Mazeikiai, and Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius.

There are hopes, however, that betting on fossil-based energy will only be a temporary measure for Lithuania. In the long term, the country may grow to generate over a third of its energy from renewable energy sources. According to climate commitments agreed on in the European Union, no less than 23 percent of all energy is expected to be produced from clean sources by 2020. Local biofuel resources hold significant potential for Lithuania’s green energy sector, as do wind energy converters. At present, Lithuanian wind power plants have a combined output of 200 megawatts and another 1,000 megawatts’ worth of electricity production will be added by 2020.

The politics and the economic toll

For all the promising prospects ahead, Ignalina’s shutdown has been seen by some as a political manoeuvre that may have dealt a hard blow to local economy, pure energy concerns aside.

Some, like former energy minister Leonas Asmantas, have taken to rather harsh criticism over the move. “It is the West that considers this power station unsafe. But it’s a myth which they have created themselves. They just want to close us down. Everyone who agreed to that is a traitor,” Asmantas said to Deutsche Welle.

In remarks quoted by Baltinfo.ru, Ignalina’s general director Viktor Shevaldin insisted that the second reactor’s technical condition could have kept the site online until mid-2012 even without major renovations.

“Later, exhaustive examinations would have been required and works to replace the core channels, which can extend a reactor’s operation outlook by 15 to 20 years. We have proposed this option to the government, but it has not been accepted,” Shevaldin said.

Residents of Visaginas planned to shine torches into the sky after midnight on January 1st, according to reports, as “lights of hope” for the future. Being already one of the countries in Europe that have been hit most severely by the recent economic recession, Lithuania will now also need to attend to the issue of unemployment in Ignalina’s hometown. According to Reuters, unemployment in Visaginas stands at about 9 percent – less than the national average of 11.7 percent – but is forecast to reach about 11.5 percent in 2010.

Energy price hikes add to the shock. AFP reports that power prices in a country of 3.3 million people are to rise on New Year by 30 percent for households and 20 percent for companies.

“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,” Raimondas Kuodis, the central bank’s chief economist, told Reuters. “It does not look a lot in the context of the global crisis, but for Lithuania’s economy it’s a painful hit.”

According to Prime Minister Kubilius, in a few years Lithuania will have an energy economy similar to that in Scandinavian countries, but Kubilius, whose conservative party only came to power in November 2008, said Lithuania had not done its homework before closing Ignalina.

“Lithuania could have better prepared for [Ignalina’s] shutdown – that much is obvious,” he was quoted by Baltinfo.Ru as saying, stressing that the power link to Sweden and upgrades on Elektrenai could have happened earlier, if the previous government had made the effort. “These are telling examples of lagging behind and not doing one’s homework. If this homework had been done properly and in time, we would have been better prepared for [Ignalina’s] closure than we are now.”

The nuclear cushion

Amid the shining hopes and economic concerns, it is not that clear if Lithuania’s case is yet fit to become the object lesson needed to demonstrate that a modern state can do without the dangerous and costly energy source that nuclear power is.

Throughout 2009, Lithuania was seen pursuing negotiations over a new nuclear power plant project in Visaginas, with Premier Kubilius indicating last June that a new nuclear reactor serving all three Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – as well as Poland, could be completed by 2018.

Last May, AFP reported that Canada was pitching a CANDU reactor to Lithuania during the Canadian trade ministry’s promotional tour in the region. By then Lithuania’s government had already talked with such reactor manufacturers as the French Areva, Spanish Endesa, General Electric-Hitachi and Westinghouse from the US, the British Nukem, and Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
And last December, after a number of delays and hitches, Lithuania finally moved to announce a tender on a concession for the construction, management, development, and design of a new NPP.

“We cleared up the stage from the old legacy for a new nuclear power plant to a strategic investor and its constructors. Now everything is clear, the stage for a new nuclear power plant construction is ready,” Energy Minister Arvydas Sekmokas said to the Lithuanian media in early December.

“The project is particularly important […] since the new nuclear power plant will contribute to the implementation of the key provisions of our energy policy – it will guarantee energy security, reduce our dependence on the sole gas supplier and will contribute to the implementation of our commitments to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2020.”

Lithuania is hoping the large pool of potential strategic investor companies it sees in Europe – Russia is not among the expected bidders – will produce a winner in six months. Latvia, Estonia, and Poland are expected to partner up for the project, whose cost estimates range between €5 billion and €15 billion.

However, experts are doubtful about the new NPP, pointing out that the money for such an expensive project may simply not be there, that one or more of the partners may still abandon the idea, and that it is unlikely to see the light of day before 2020.

“All that they’re doing now is pure politics. Between closing the old [Ignalina] and building a new [NPP] there is just politics, nothing but that,” Ignalina’s head Shevaldin said to Baltinfo.Ru.

Meanwhile, over the border to the southeast, Belarusian authorities are sparing no means to force Belarusians to accept a new nuclear power plant project in the town of Ostrovets in Grodno Region – with energy security being just the trump card that the atomic lobby uses to promote the idea. While Lithuania begs off its nuclear fuel supply arrangement with Russia, Belarus seems to be seeking just that, compounding its success tactics with intimidation of anyone opposing the Ostrovets project.

Similarly, Russia lacks no reserve as it pushes ahead with the new Baltic Nuclear Power Plant it wants to build in Kaliningrad. Both projects are touted as replacement options for the retired Ignalina. Yet, Ignalina is closed already – while no plausible scenario could have either of the new plants launch power production before 2016.

There is thus the hope that in the next six to seven years, Lithuania will completely wean itself off its nuclear dependence and strengthen its energy economy enough to refuse to either build new nuclear power plants or buy energy from those its neighbours suggest building right in its own backyard.

The costly process of achieving closure

Costs associated with increasing load on the existing fossil-based power plants and investing in renewable energy – not to mention other economic setbacks brought by Ignalina’s shutdown – are not the only challenges Lithuania will now have to grapple with. Decommissioning a nuclear power plant is a lengthy and expensive process.

In 2010 alone, expenses incurred by taking Ignalina offline and by ongoing safety procedures at the shutdown site will exceed €100 million. The first stage of decommissioning may take between 25 and 30 years and will have to lighten Lithuania’s coffers by €1 billion. As part of the shutdown agreement with the European Union, however, the EU has pledged to finance all works involved in the decommissioning for the first 25 years. By comparison, no safe decommissioning projects – nor any funding sources – have been developed in Russia for the already closed reactors at Novovoronezh and Beloyarsk NPPs. All the associated costs, estimated at between €500 million to €1 billion per reactor, may translate into a sizable hole in the state budget or increased prices consumers will pay for nuclear-generated electricity.

Hikes in electric power prices are also inevitable because the Ignalina site – built in 1978 to 1984 – was an heirloom Lithuania kept after it seceded from the Soviet Union twenty years ago. As part of the Soviet empire, Lithuania had not had to foot the enormous construction bill and power generated at Ignalina was sold at extremely low – almost dumping-level – prices. These did not include mark-ups explained by the need to compensate for construction and equipment costs, which normally make up to 60 percent of consumer prices for electricity supplies, with the remaining 40 percent accounting for expenses on fuel.

This is how Lithuania’s former president Algirdas Brazauskas described the construction of Ignalina in an interview to the Lithuanian news site Delfi.Lt: “[The Ignalina NPP] was being built with no cost sheet in place. I remember it very well: However much money was asked for, they were giving it. An open credit account was set up for Ignalina at the [Industrial Construction Bank] of the USSR, and there was as much money as was needed, so it is impossible to establish how much [Ignalina] cost.”

This is one reason why Brazauskas is sceptical about Lithuania’s plans to build a new NPP: There simply is no bottomless budget like the one the USSR provided to back up a new project.

“It is possible that some other powerful state in Western Europe shows an interest in building a nuclear power plant in Lithuania and supplying the bulk of this electric power into its country. But for that, power links are needed, which aren’t cheap, either, and besides, when energy is transported over large distances, significant [financial] losses are incurred,” Brazauskas said to Delfi.Lt.

Nuclear and radioactive waste: The hot legacy

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite sees closing Ignalina as a chance to sever the umbilical cord of her country’s energy dependence on Russia.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite sees closing Ignalina as a chance to sever the umbilical cord of her country’s energy dependence on Russia.

According to the decommissioning plan worked out for Ignalina by the Lithuanian Ministry of Economy in 2005, dismantling the facility’s two reactors will yield around 5,900 cubic metres of high-level radioactive waste and some 130,000 cubic metres of solid radioactive waste. These are huge amounts. Altogether, this waste would easily fill 1,800 standard-sized railway cars or thirteen typical four-entrance five-storey blocks of flats.

A cementation plant and several solid radioactive waste storage facilities will be required to handle Ignalina’s waste. Also in the plans is building a 100,000-cubic-metre subsurface storage site and a storage facility for very low-level waste with a capacity of 60,000 cubic metres.

Handling spent nuclear fuel (SNF), the most dangerous nuclear waste that Ignalina has generated over decades of operation, is an especially problematic issue. Spent nuclear fuel from RBMK reactors is not reprocessed and consequently, it has never been removed from the site and is currently stored in the cooling pools at Ignalina. Works are currently in progress to transfer Ignalina’s spent nuclear fuel into CASTOR and CONSTOR storage casks ordered from Germany.

One such cask weighs around 70 tonnes and can hold no more than 14 tonnes of spent fuel. SNF-loaded casks are placed in special storage yards and in a temporary subsurface waste storage facility. In expert estimates, over 350 casks will be needed altogether to complete the operation. But the design service period of such casks is limited to 50 years, while SNF will remain radioactive for around 240,000 years. New temporary storage facilities will have to be built every hundred years, and new storage casks will be needed every fifty years.

So even though it has said farewell to the old and hazardous Ignalina, Lithuania is far from being rid of its dangerous nuclear legacy – an outlook looming ever more challenging if its prospects of a nuclear-free nation are dimmed with plans to accumulate more radioactive waste by building and operating new nuclear power plants.

Andrei Ozharovsky, Maria Kaminskaya and Charles Digges each contributed to this report.