Extended life for Lithuanian nuke plant falters on low voter turnout

Publish date: October 16, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG - A referendum in Lithuania to prolong the engineered lifespan of the aged and contentious Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant has failed, faltering on the shoals of low voter turnout, making the prolongation of the nuclear plant’s operation illegal.

However, 90 percent of those voters that did turnout voted for the extension, so had the legal number of voters turned out it could reasonably be concluded that the referendum might have passed.

Though the failure to the referendum to be carried by voters is a technicality, it nonetheless represents an environmental victory as the old Soviet built plant, which operates on fatally flawed Chernobyl-type RBMK reactors, must be shut down.

The failure of the referendum roughly coincides with a poorly received public hearing held this week in Belarus, under conditions of the Espoo convention, on Lithuania’s plans to build a new nuclear power plant, and the environmental impact study that had been conducted for the project. The hearing sent designers and plant supports back to the drawing board to more completely address questions that were left unanswered by the study.

Last week’s referendum question on extending the period of usage of the Ignalina plant – something government officials have insisted is necessary to ensure Lithuanian energy independence from its chilly neighbor and former master, Russia – appeared on the same ballot that was used in the countries Parliamentary elections, held last week.

A 50 percent voter turnout was required to make the referendum legal, yet only 48 percent of Lithuania’s registered voters turned out on October 12th to register their opinion.

The ballot gave voters the choice of voting for the extension, against it, or ignoring the question altogether – which counts as a vote against the dangerous extension notion. By Lithuanian election law, the less than 50 percent plus once vote turnout de facto means that more than 50 percent of the country’s voters are against extending the operation of Ignalina – which is already operating on an extension license.

Russia, Lithuania’s immediate neighbour, routinely extends engineered life spans for its aging and ailing reactors, but these decisions are made by fiat of the Russian Federal Service for Ecological, Technical and Atomic Supervision (Rostekhnadzor.) 

The failure of the referendum is therefore instructive, and should pose some tough questions to Russia and the regard it holds for the opinion of its own citizens’ attitude to nuclear power expansion.
A poll taken last year in the Northwest Murmansk Region by the ROMIR polling agency showed that 85 percent of the region – which is home to the Kola Nuclear Power Plant and Russia’s nuclear Northern Fleet – is against extending the life-spans of old reactors. Only 12 percent of respondents to this poll thought extensions a good idea.
[picture2 left]“It could be expected that if an analogous referendum were held in the Murmansk region, citizens would not only speak out against extending the life-spans of old reactors, but most likely for their closure,” said Vitaly Servetnik head of the Murmansk environmental group Nature and Youth. No such polling date has been compiled on Lithuania’s attitude toward extending

“But existing legislation make conducting such referendums extremely difficult and allows nuclear energy lobbyists to realise their dangerous projects,” he said. 

Others agree that referendums on such projects are simply correct legal policy.

“Conducting referendums on questions of nuclear energy is correct policy,” said Andrei Ozharovsky, an activist and nuclear physicist with the Russian environmental group Ecodefence. “Accidents and catastrophes at nuclear power plants affect the population the most, not politicians, and therefore the people must take part in decisions regarding the construction or life-span extensions of dangerous installations.” 

Bellona’s Rashid Alimov, editor of Bellona’s Russian language pages, agreed, adding that popular opinion, and not governmental diktat, should guide principles on whether to extend reactor life spans.

"Yes, the overwhelming majority of those who came to vote voted in favour of the extending of the life-span,” said Alimov.

“But still, the result is, that referendum, which Lithuania considers as binding, failed, abolishing the myth of full support of the nuclear energy in Lithuania, which gets 70 percent of electricity from the NPPs"

Closing the Ignalina plant was one of the conditions of Lithuania entering the European Union. Its first reactor unit, with a 1500 gigawatt output, was shut down in 2004. Its second unit was allowed to continue operations until 2009. It was the extension of this second reactor that was at stake in last week’s referendum.

Nuclear industry proponents have laid big hopes on the referendum. Despite the fact that the nuclear power plant produces about 70 percent of the electricity consumed in Lithuania, the industry was unable to convince the population to support the referendum.

“The Lithuanians themselves upheld the demands of the European Union, which insisted that they old nuclear power plant be shut down,” said Ozharovsky. “It can be expected that it will be hard to raise public support for the construction of a new nuclear station.”

At present, Rostekhnadzor has issued engineered lifespan extensions for the first and second reactor blocks at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant, for reactors at the Bilibin and Novovornezh nuclear power plants, and for two Chernobyl-type RMBK reactors at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant.

Bellona Web’s St. Petersburg bureau contributed to this report.