Lithuania votes on fate of Soviet nuclear plant

2008-10-10 11:05:04 –

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) – This Baltic nation mulls a stark choice in a referendum this weekend held on the same day as national elections: Faith in an outmoded Chernobyl-style nuclear plant or dependence on Russian gas.
The European Union says the Ignalina power station is unsafe and keeping it open violates Lithuania’s accession agreement. But more than 70 percent of respondents in a recent poll said they will vote Sunday to keep the station online beyond its scheduled shutdown on Dec. 31, 2009.
Mistrust of Russia runs high in Lithuania because of bitter memories of the Soviet occupation _ but it has been particularly acute since Russia invaded Georgia in August and sparked fears that the Kremlin had designs on other neighbors.
Energy wealth has been one of the Kremlin’s most potent tools in seeking greater influence among former vassal states.
«I will definitely go vote to save that plant for a couple more years. We shouldn’t bow to Brussels,» said retired engineer Arvydas Sirvinskas. By becoming hooked on Russian gas, he said, «Lithuania will suffer worse than under the Soviets.
Although Sunday’s referendum is nonbinding, supporters hope a massive «yes» vote will boost Lithuania’s lobbying efforts in Brussels to keep the plant running. The most fervent pro-Ignalina voices call for simply rejecting the EU’s demands to close the plant.
«Let’s make it clear: we will not close Ignalina in 2009, no matter what Brussels’ reaction may be,» said former President Rolandas Paksas, who is trying to make a political comeback after being impeached in 2004 for violating the Constitution and abuse of office.
Lithuania’s government upped the ante in its face-off with Brussels when Economy Minister Vytas Navickas on Thursday threatened to block any EU climate change deal if Vilnius didn’t receive more funds for closing the Ignalina plant.
The Baltic nation of 3.4 million is currently unconnected to the European electricity grid, so if Ignalina stops cranking out kilowatts, Lithuania will be forced to import energy from Russia.
Russia has cut energy supplies to neighbors over political disputes on numerous occasions. In 2006 Moscow ceased deliveries of crude oil to Lithuania after Vilnius decided to sell its oil refinery to Poland’s PKN Orlen instead of a Russian company.
President Valdas Adamkua, who opposes the referendum, says the vote, which was called by Parliament, smacks of populism.
«It is not fair to speculate on people’s fears for one’s own political purposes,» Adamkus told Lithuanian Radio.
But his voice has been drowned out as all major parties _ the ruling Social Democrats, Paksas’ centrist opposition Order and Justice party and the populist Labor Party _ have voiced support for keeping the plant open.
The two opposition parties lead the polls, setting the stage for a populist coalition together with the Lithuanian Peasant Popular Union.
EU leaders, including European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, say they understand Lithuania’s concerns but insist delaying the closure is not an option.
«Lithuania knew the situation when it signed the (pre-accession) agreement, and now they have to do it,» said Ferran Tarradellas, assistant to EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs.
Safety is the foremost EU concern.
The Ignalina plant is a Soviet-designed reactor similar to the Chernobyl facility that exploded in 1986. The first unit was closed in 2004, and despite some ¤500 million (US$680 million) invested in safety upgrades, Brussels wants the second reactor closed forever.
«This is not just a question about Lithuanians _ it’s about 480 million Europeans,» Tarradellas said.
While Lithuanians share Europe’s anxiety about design flaws, the reactor provides 70 percent of their electricity needs _ making the country the second-most nuclear dependent country in the world after France.
Economy Minister Vytas Navickas warns the reactor’s closure will shave 4 percent off economic growth, boost inflation 3-4 percent, and cause harmful carbon emissions to soar.
Lithuania, together with neighbors Estonia, Latvia and Poland, plans to build a new nuclear plant, but delays have postponed a possible launch to as late as 2020. A ¤300 million (US$410 million) energy link in Poland won’t be operational until 2012, if not later.
Some Lithuanians say that clinging to Ignalina will only delay necessary moves to modernize Lithuania’s power network.
«We must accept the fact the plant will stop functioning shortly,» said Jurgis Vilemas, chairman of the Lithuania Energy Institute.
AP reporter Gary Peach in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.