The European Union is urging candidate countries in Eastern and Central Europe to shut down their unsafe nuclear plants or risk losing their bids to enter the EU. But Lithuania, which has been asked to close its Ignalina plant by 2009, says that without increased financial assistance from the EU, the economic and social consequences of such a move will be devastating for the Baltic nation.
Prague, 3 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In negotiations with its candidate countries in Eastern and Central Europe, the European Union has said some candidates may not be able to close the so-called energy "chapter" in their accession talks without first closing their outdated and unsafe nuclear power plants.
Among the countries facing such an ultimatum is Lithuania, where some 80 percent of the country's energy is produced by the Ignalina nuclear plant. The plant, which uses the same model of reactors as those in the ill-fated Chornobyl plant in Ukraine, has been labeled unsafe by Brussels. Lithuania has already pledged to shut down the first of the two reactors by 2005.
The fate of the second reactor, however, is causing heated debate between Lithuanian and EU negotiators. Lithuania has refused to commit to the proposed 2009 shut-down date without a pledge of increased financial assistance from the EU. But Brussels, which has already offered 245 million euros ($215 million) for closing Ignalina, says that without a commitment from Vilnius on the 2009 target date Lithuania may see its accession process stall. Lithuania's chief negotiator with the EU, Petras Austrevicius, says Vilnius welcomes the EU assistance that has already been offered. But he says the country may need billions more euros over the next two decades to cover what he says will be the "social, environmental, and other consequences" of closing Ignalina.
"We cannot assume unilateral commitments [if there is] no mutual commitment. Lithuania and the EU should agree on [money] issues -- agree on costs and financing sources for the closure of Ignalina."
However, Austrevicius does not think the Ignalina issue will keep Lithuania from joining the EU in 2004, saying compromises will likely be made on each side.
Lithuania says it needs an additional 3 billion euros ($2.6 billion) to cover all the costs involved in decommissioning the plant. Austrevicius says the calculation is based on the combined opinion of both international and local experts. The negotiator also urged caution, saying there is no previous experience in decommissioning Chornobyl-style reactors like those at Ignalina.
In February, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus -- who earlier in his career worked as an administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- supported this cautious stance. He said Lithuania should not approve the proposed 2009 closure date, and said he would not back down in the face of what he called "unilateral pressure" from the EU.
During a visit to Britain last week, however, Adamkus was more conciliatory, saying Lithuania is ready to move toward closing the plant in order to join the EU. But he said the EU should fully appreciate the difficulty of such a step and do more to support Lithuania financially during the transition.
Presidential spokeswoman Violeta Gaizauskaite told RFE/RL, "The president stated very clearly that what Lithuania has promised to do, it will. However, Lithuania cannot assume commitments that overstretch its financial and economic capabilities. Alone, Lithuania is not and will not be able to bear the cost of decommissioning."
It is unlikely, however, that the EU will change its attitude. Emma Udvin, a spokeswoman for the EU Commission in Brussels, says the EU has already given Lithuania 100 million euros ($88 million) and is likely to give more -- but not as much as Lithuania has requested. Udvin, who called the EU offer "generous," says the commission wants Lithuania to confirm its commitment to shut down the first reactor and pledge to shut down the second by 2009.
"We think that we have made an appropriate financial offer. We do appreciate that there are difficulties, but it is the offer that is on the table and Lithuania must decide how it will respond."
Millions of dollars have already been invested to upgrade Ignalina's safety standards, but the Lithuanian plant is still considered one of the most dangerous in Europe.
In a study published last month, the Austrian Ecological Institute rated Ignalina the third-most-dangerous plant, with a risk factor of 11. The two plants deemed most unsafe -- Armenia's "Armenia" plant and Bulgaria's Kozloduy -- each received 13 risk points.
Further down on the scale, Slovenia's Krsko got seven risk points. The Czech Republic's Dukovany earned six risk points, as did Hungary's Paks and Slovakia's Mochovce plants. The Temelin plant, also in the Czech Republic, rated five points.
Bulgaria, which is not likely to gain entry to the EU in the near future, has offered to begin closure of its Kozloduy plant by the end of this year, for scheduled completion in 2006.
Increasing pressure from Brussels may result in increasing "euroskepticism" in Lithuania. Recent polls conducted by the Lithuanian market and opinion research center Vilmorus indicate that 49 percent of Lithuanians support EU membership.
The director of the Vilmorus center, Vladas Gaidys, told RFE/RL that "euroskepticism" is on the rise in Lithuania because of the unexpectedly small EU agricultural subsidies and the Ignalina issue. Although people are worried about the plant's safety risks, Gaidys says, they are also concerned about the economic consequences of shutting down the plant altogether.
The majority of the plant's 4,600 employees are Russian-speakers who came to Lithuania in the 1980s when the plant opened. Many of the employees now fear they will soon lose their jobs. Last month, Ignalina management took what they called "additional security measures" to protect the plant from any internal threats from increasingly disgruntled workers.
Austrevicius told RFE/RL that even if Lithuania agrees to close Ignalina, it should not be interpreted as a sign Vilnius is rejecting nuclear energy altogether. Some Lithuanian politicians are pressing for a new and safer plant to replace Ignalina. The issue of closing the current plant, Austrevicius said, is a matter of "safety and nothing more."