March 29, 2011 11:13 pm

Lithuania focuses on breaking Russia’s grip

Like other European politicians, Romas Svedas, Lithuania’s deputy minister for energy, takes a moment to offer his condolences to the victims of Japan’s nuclear crisis. But only a moment.

“Now is the best time to build nuclear!” Mr Svedas declares excitedly. “We are going ahead with our project – no changes.”

That project is a 3.4 megawatt plant that Lithuania intends to build in Visaginas, a small town in this Baltic nation of 3.3m people.

Like other European Union states, the enthusiasm for nuclear energy is based in part on a government desire to meet the bloc’s tough greenhouse gas standards. More importantly, though, nuclear is central to the region’s ambitions to free itself from reliance on its energy-rich neighbour, Russia.

“This is an issue of national security,” says Mr Svedas, whose office looks out on the former local KGB headquarters, a grand building whose basement walls still bear bullet marks from executions of Lithuanian political prisoners.

Even as Germany experiences electoral convulsions amid a surge of anti-nuclear fervour in the wake of the Fukushima plant crisis, and the EU orders “stress tests” on all the continent’s 143 nuclear reactors, Lithuania is pressing ahead.

Although its support for nuclear energy may be more visible than others in the wake of the Japanese disaster, it is hardly unique. France has long embraced nuclear technology and has resisted efforts in recent weeks to give the EU more authority to regulate its nuclear industry.

Still, Lithuania’s enthusiasm is a reminder of the rift between the bloc’s founding states and its newest members over energy. Two years ago, the easterners were stricken by a gas crisis when Russia, the EU’s biggest supplier, turned off its pumps. Ever since, they have nursed resentment at the rest of bloc’s perceived neglect of their desire for energy independence.

“Other central-eastern European countries are still very optimistic about nuclear,” says Georg Zachmann, a fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels think-tank, pointing to Poland and Romania, in particular. With less cash than their wealthy neighbours, their citizens may also be more willing to tolerate the risks of nuclear. “There’s a perceived lack of alternatives,” he says.

Lithuania has lived with nuclear before. Ignalina, its sprawling Chernobyl-era plant, powered the country from the mid-1980s. But Lithuania agreed to close it on joining the EU in 2004. The perverse consequence was that, even as Lithuania became politically tied to the west, it became reliant on its former Kremlin masters the for its oil and gas.

“The closure of Ignalina was not very popular and it still isn’t,” says Virginijus Valentinavicius, an adviser to prime minister Andrius Kubilius.

With the help of the EU, Lithuania is hoping to build a coastal terminal for liquefied natural gas, a pipeline connection to open up supplies from Poland and a link to the Swedish electricity grid.

Yet the cornerstone of its plan for energy independence is the nuclear plant, which would contribute 51 per cent of the country’s electricity by 2020, and supply neighbours Latvia and Estonia, also energy supplicants to the Kremlin and Gazprom.

The plant would sit beside the old one in an area carved from the forests of eastern Lithuania, where about 2,000 workers show up each day to dismantle the decommissioned reactors and tend to some 20,000 spent fuel rods. It is a task that is expected to last at least 20 years.

Because Ignalina was built without a containment vessel – a safety feature now seen as vital – it is possible to walk up to the edge of the first reactor.

“The technology proved itself to be quite OK,” says Osvaldas Ciuksys, the plant’s director-general, noting that Ignalina never suffered a serious incident.

Even with the political will, Lithuania is struggling to find a strategic investor for the project, whose cost is estimated at €3bn-€5bn ($4bn-$7bn). Korea Electric Power unexpectedly withdrew from the bidding in November. Before the Fukushima disaster, Mr Svedas was in Japan trying to drum up interest.

If Lithuania does not build a plant, someone else will: Russia. Moscow is planning two nuclear plants on either side of Lithuania – one in Kaliningrad, the other in Belarus.

The latter would be just across the border from Vilnius, stoking alarm that Lithuanians could be living in the shadow of a plant built and operating to questionable standards.

Lithuanians suspect the Russians intend to deter investment in their plant and perpetuate their energy dependence on Moscow.

“They would use this for political purposes for domination in the region,” said Mr Svedas. “Belarus is a big country. Build it somewhere else.”

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