COMMENT: Poland begs off new Lithuanian NPP venture, environmentalists demand to scrap the nuke plant project altogether

Акция у Министерства охраны окружающей среды Литвы, 9 декабря 2011 г.
Laura Gintalaitė

Publish date: December 14, 2011

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – Poland has announced it would not participate in the construction of the new nuclear power plant (NPP) to replace the shut-down Ignalina in neighboring Lithuania’s Visaginas. Nor was Warsaw interested in buying electricity from Baltic NPP, a project Russia has been actively, if not exactly successfully, pursuing in its enclave in the same region. On December 9, when the statements came, environmentalists in Vilnius picketed Lithuania’s environmental protection ministry demanding to stop the dangerous project in Visaginas.

In a statement circulated on December 9, Poland’s largest power supplier Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE) said it was declining to participate in financing the new nuclear power plant in Visaginas – a town in Lithuania that is also home to the now defunct Ignalina NPP, a Soviet-built two-reactor station Vilnius had closed down in compliance with the European Union’s requirement during Lithuania’s accession to the union. Vilnius is now in the process of decommissioning the old reactors and has also been in talks with potential investors to build a replacement plant.

PGE also announced it was ending negotiations with the Russian power trading company Inter RAO UES on the offer to buy electricity from Baltic NPP, a nuclear power plant Russia is building in its westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad, near the Lithuanian border. This is a first NPP project Moscow has considered attracting foreign funding to – and it has had trouble in the recent years finding an investor for a station largely expected to produce electricity for export rather than meet less than vigorous local demand.  

“Given the terms that have proven unacceptable for the time being, given the other projects that are important for our group, we have decided to halt our participation in this program before assuming any formal obligations,” PGE head Tomasz Zadroga was quoted by the Lithuanian news agency DELFI (in Russian) as saying.

Meanwhile, a number of steps have been undertaken by the governments of Russia and Belarus to forge cooperation on another controversial NPP project, a station Belarus wants Russia to build to an as yet untested Russian design in its town of Ostrovets – despite vocal opposition from the Belarusian public and repeated objections from official Vilnius. Environmentalists in all three countries fear this small Baltic region might soon be trapped in a deadly nuclear noose and have been active in making their concerns and protests heard.

Poland’s move to push Baltic NPP toward bankruptcy

For Russia’s own Baltic NPP in Kaliningrad, Poland’s decision to stop negotiating on the power import prospects spells unpleasant implications.

Russia’s 2.4-gigawatt project is being implemented with the sole purpose of exporting electricity outside the Russian borders – yet not even the highly accommodating prices Moscow is offering have managed to inspire either of the neighbors, Lithuania or Poland, to show a spark of interest in buying Russia’s nuclear electricity.

Kaliningrad Region’s own demand for electricity is well satisfied. As the failure to land export contracts becomes painfully clear, the Russian nuclear industry has started pondering rather fantastic projects to spur demand elsewhere – such as laying power cables across the bottom of the Baltic Sea in search of buyers farther off. But Germany, for one, decided, in the wake of the horrifying disaster at Japan’s Fukushima, to withdraw its support of nuclear energy altogether, moving to both phase out its own nuclear energy production and cease to buy nuclear electricity from other countries. Sweden’s energy market is, too, saturated enough to cause Sweden to look into export possibilities of its own. 

The announcement by the Polish energy giant that it is begging off the Baltic NPP project threatens to render the very idea of a nuclear power plant in Kaliningrad Region a commercial and strategic bankrupt. Still, the Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom could be expected to pursue the unneeded project at all costs – regardless of its economic viability or current market environment.

Lithuania’s reactor choice a modification of Fukushima design

The Poles’ other decision, to withdraw from the Lithuanian project in Visaginas, is bound to affect that endeavor, too. Lithuania earlier tried enlisting Poland’s cooperation, as well as that of its former sister USSR republics of Latvia and Estonia, to build the new station by 2020. The choice of strategic investor and reactor supplier fell on the Japanese-American giant Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy. The problem is that the chosen reactor type, ABWR (for Advanced Boiling Water Reactor), is the more modern, Generation III modification on the reactors that were in operation at Fukushima – the now destroyed Japanese nuclear power plant that was hit last March by a severe earthquake and a devastating tsunami wave, which knocked out its power supply and led to multiple meltdowns, exposure of spent fuel rods in cooling ponds, and massive releases of radiation. Works to bring the stricken plant under control are still ongoing and are only expected to conclude by the end of the year. Fukushima’s reactors, too, were of a GE design.

Besides the unfortunate relation to the Fukushima reactors, ABWRs have, for their own part, shown a certain unreliability and poor economic record even under standard operating conditions. Last October, a court in Japan ruled Hitachi liable for $117 million in damages for an accident, and resulting loss of profit, at a Hitachi-made AWBR reactor at Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant, in Omaezaki city, Shizuoka Prefecture.

The electronics and heavy industry giant had manufactured the turbine used at the plant. Because of problems with the steam turbine, the reactor at Hamaoka was taken offline and remained in downtime for nearly eight months as repairs continued, from June 2006 to February 2007. Hamaoka’s operator entity, Chubu Electric Power Company, brought a lawsuit in 2008 and the Tokyo District Court found Hitachi liable for JPY 9 billion (or $117 million), payable to Chubu Electric, in compensation for the loss of profit that resulted from the downtime.

As far as Lithuania’s nuclear negotiations with Poland, Latvia, and Estonia, the path toward a new plant to serve all four Baltic states has not exactly been smooth sailing.

With the three nuclear power plants in the region being in various stages of planning or implementation, the only thing the neighbors – Russia, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – are finding in common regarding the region’s nuclear or nuclear-free future is that each has its own bag of contentious political and economic issues to sort out with the others. A certain twist is added by the three former Baltic USSR republics’ strained relations with Moscow – a vestige of the bitter Soviet history that began with the USSR’s annexation of that region in the 1940s.

The new Visaginas project dates back at least five years, and in early 2011, the Latvian publication Ves.Lv deplored a lack of accord and due brotherly loyalty between the former states of Soviet influence as it rehashed a story of failed nuclear cooperation stemming from 2006. The story centered around how Russia was allegedly using the limping project of the new Lithuanian NPP as a tool to promote its own nuclear construction in Kaliningrad.

According to the story, in 2006, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian premiers signed a memorandum on equal participation in Lithuanian NPP construction, with approximate costs of 1.4 billion to 2.1 billion in Latvian lats ($2.7 billion to $4 billion). Poland was later engaged as well and plans were discussed to give Vilnius a 34 percent shareholding in the future plant, with 22 percent kept by each of the other participants.

In 2008, Ves.Lv said, the Lithuanians founded a company of their own to build the plant. A year later, however, Lithuania itself declared the creation of the company illegal. A variety of issues, meanwhile, kept sabotaging Lithuania and Poland’s cooperation.

But in the five years of political back-and-forth, Russia has made the necessary steps to begin construction of its own plant in Kaliningrad – however fragile that project may now be, with Poland exiting the scene – essentially pushing Lithuania out of the market niche, the Latvian paper said.

With Poland’s withdrawal out of Visaginas, Lithuania may only have one other avenue left to try – an export construction credit from the Japanese government, if it agrees to support its domestic producer Hitachi. But as far as the new reactor’s safety and economic performance are concerned, clearing the funding hurdle will hardly make a difference where those two factors are concerned. If Lithuania does bring the Visaginas project to fruition, not only will it run the risk of having built a dangerous and unreliable reactor, but it will also start accumulating yet another massive stockpile of nuclear and radioactive waste – in addition to that generated in the course of Ignalina’s operation. Because Lithuania had to shut down Ignalina to comply with EU’s requirements, it is the European Union that is paying for the dirty and painstaking decommissioning job now in progress at the old station. In the case of the new plant, it will be Lithuania’s own wallet and its own responsibility to handle the new waste.

Abandon the new NPP – stop amassing the waste problem

The problem of radioactive waste was exactly the focus of the anti-nuclear action held by Lithuanian environmentalists in Vilnius on December 9 (photos and footage from the action are available for viewing here and here).

At noon, the activists appeared at the building housing the Lithuanian Ministry of Environment bringing a Christmas present – a few mock boxes with radioactive waste – that they laid at the entrance door. None of the officials inside was willing to sign for the delivery. “So why doesn’t the ministry object to the construction of an NPP that will generate not symbolic, but very real and very dangerous waste?” was the activists’ question.

bodytextimage_Vil2.jpg Photo: Laura Gintalaitė

The action involved elements of a street performance: The protesters put the parcels with “radioactive” waste on top of one another, building small towers of sorts; the towers toppled, spilling the waste; the wind lifted the mock waste, carried it around the neighborhood.

“This will symbolize how unreliable the existing storage methods for radioactive waste are, how easily radiation can escape into the environment,” said one of the participants, Laura Gintalaitė.

Environmentalists believe the only way to prevent accumulation of more radioactive waste – a problem the world has yet to find any efficient solutions for – is choose not to build any more nuclear power plants. And close those that are in operation.

“Could the environment ministry simply be wanting money, if it regularly speaks in support of the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant?” the activists asked. They also pointed out that the official, government-backed Environmental Impact Assessment report done for the new Visaginas project does not offer any reliable methods for safe handling of radioactive waste that will result from the new plant’s operation.

Environmentalists: The “peaceful” atom kills us, it kills the climate

This is how one of the protest’s organizers, Darius Pocevicius, described the action for Bellona:

On December 9, a group of young people gathered at the Lithuanian Ministry of Environment in Vilnius to voice their protest against the position taken by this government entity, which supports the development of nuclear energy and speaks in favor of building the new NPP in Visaginas. The action was also dedicated to the COP17 climate talks under way in Durban [at the time], in which representatives of our ministry were taking part as well, convinced that nuclear energy is supposedly the cleanest source of energy there is. 

At the entrance to the ministry, the participants of the action piled empty boxes carrying warning signs to symbolize containers with radioactive waste and explained to passers-by that nuclear energy was not the cleanest, but the dirtiest source of energy. The leaflets they were passing among the ministry’s employees and onlookers said: “The atom kills the climate and it kills us.”

Nuclear energy is a poor means of combating climate change, but the environment ministry thinks otherwise and supports the construction of Visaginas NPP. Nuclear energy does not solve the problem of climate change, but creates it. Nuclear energy’s full fuel cycle, including the extraction and enrichment of uranium, does significant damage to the environment, as it produces emissions of CO2 and contributes to climate change. And NPP construction detracts funding from energy efficiency and renewable energy development programs, while at the same time the production and enrichment of uranium involves spending large amounts of energy and leads to greenhouse gas emissions.

This is why, for our ministry heads, who are supposedly unaware of this, we brought this early Christmas present – the future nuclear waste from Visaginas NPP.

“They must have felt ashamed”

“The young people who have joined in the association Ž [Lithuanian Greens, in Lithuanian] have come to express their bewilderment – why is it that a state institution charged with protecting the environment is doing just the opposite and promoting dirty nuclear energy. For a whole half-hour, we kept ministry officials from getting into the building, but they didn’t call the police – apparently, they were too ashamed of their dirty PR,” Pocevicius told Bellona in an interview.

bodytextimage_litva-aes-karta-1..jpg Photo: Плакат Кампании «Против трёх АЭС»

All three new NPP projects in the region – Russia’s Baltic, Belarus’s Ostrovets, and Lithuania’s Visaginas – have since their inception caused public protests and faced vigorous anti-nuclear campaigns, both local and those coordinated on a broader scale. One of the recent ones is an international campaign “For a Nuclear-Free Region,” an initiative that unites activists of all three countries in an effort to oppose the construction of the three new monsters that threaten to ensnare the region in a deadly nuclear trap. For now, however, officials in Moscow, Minsk, and Vilnius prefer to engage in extolling each the virtues of their own new NPP while excoriating the deficiencies of those of their neighbors’ – missing the very point that there is no choosing a “safer” evil where nuclear energy is concerned.