June 19, 2008
IT was a mistake to start with, compounded by procrastination. The consequences for the security of one of Europe’s most vulnerable corners are potentially appalling.
As part of the deal to join the European Union, Lithuania agreed to close its perfectly serviceable nuclear-power station at Ignalina. No engineering or safety case for this was ever made: the requirement was a political one, sprouting from a neurotic strand of greenery in western Europe.
Lithuanians can feel cross about that. But they should be furious with politicians of all stripes, who have failed to plan for the now imminent deadline of 2009. After that, Lithuania will be 90% dependent on fossil fuel, with around half of its supplies coming from Russia. Unscrambling the agreement on Ignalina would require the consent of every EU member, at a time when their patience has been taxed by Lithuania’s brave but unpopular veto on new talks with Russia.
March to shutdown at Ignalina
Lithuanian officials are looking for wiggle-room—for example, starting to close the power station in 2009, but not actually taking it off-stream. Few would bet much on that bearing fruit. The populist parties that are hoping to take power in this autumn’s elections have a simpler message: they will simply ignore the requirement to close Ignalina. That would mean an almighty bust-up with Brussels.
The only bright side is that Lithuanian politicians will finally face the consequences of their actions, or lack of them. The sensible thing would have been to start several years ago building a new nuclear plant on the same site, to replace Ignalina. But the countries involved in the plan (Lithuania and the other two Baltic states, with the belated addition of Poland) still cannot agree how big it should be, or on shareholding structure. That exasperates those who urgently want the Baltic “energy islands” hooked up into the rest of Europe. But nobody seems able to bang heads together with sufficient force.
Other vital projects such as power links to Sweden and Poland are also woefully behind schedule. Lithuania still squanders energy; a programme to improve home insulation is pitifully inadequate.
Matters are even worse because Venezuela has stopped supplies of orimulsion, a bitumen-based fuel that formed an important part of Lithuania’s energy imports. Whether that is due to Hugo Chavez’s friendship with Vladimir Putin is a matter of dark speculation in Vilnius.
The immediate danger for Lithuania is that Russia will drive a hard bargain for the extra gas, most likely by demanding a bigger stake in Lithuania’s energy industry. In the long run, Russia says it will build a new nuclear power station in Kaliningrad, the exclave of territory it holds between Lithuania and Poland.
The truly galling prospect is that this gets built and hooks up to the European energy network, while the Lithuanians and their EU allies continue dithering about a replacement for Ignalina. That would be yet another victory for Russia’s push into Europe, and yet another humiliating defeat for those who try to oppose it.
As so often in European security, hopes for a rescue rest on America. Lithuania is not only offering to host America’s missile-defence base if the Poles decide they don’t want it. It is also hoping that an American company will build the new nuclear reactor.
Perhaps—but these things don’t happen overnight and Russia is hardly likely to find extra gas to heat a country set on hosting a missile base that it sees as a direct threat. It looks like 2009 will be a year of hot diplomacy and cold radiators in Lithuania.