Prague, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Nuclear power plants in Lithuania, Bulgaria and Armenia pose a dilemma for European Union officials who want to shut down Eastern Europe's most dangerous reactors.
Over-dependence on nuclear energy in those countries has made it impossible to close their aging Soviet-designed reactors and still fuel the kind of economic growth needed to make market reforms successful.
EU officials thought they had won promises from Bulgaria and Lithuania on early closures back in 1993 when grants totaling more than $50 million were awarded to improve nuclear safety.
But EU External Affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek has become frustrated by Sofia's refusal to honor the promise and by threats from Vilnius to back out of its agreement.
That has forced Brussels to resort to its strongest weapon in the push for shutdowns. Instead of tying aid deliveries to closures, Van den Broek is now telling prospective EU members they will not be invited into the Union until they reach Western standards on nuclear safety.
That has some Eastern leaders questioning which course is more financially feasible -- improving their old Soviet-designed reactors or scrapping them altogether and building new types of power plants.
Brussels has made it clear that it cannot fund all the necessary improvements across Eastern Europe. But Eastern leaders say they must have aid to improve safety and reduce their dependence on nuclear energy.
Van den Broek says Lithuania must set a concrete timetable for closing its Ignalina plant before it will be invited to fast-track talks on EU membership. But early this month, when Lithuanian Economics Minister Vincas Babilius submitted the government's draft energy policy to parliament, he warned that Lithuania cannot specify shutdown dates without aid commitments:
"We can't give an exact date until we know certain variables -- for example, when and how much money will be available [to support closures] and for what specific purposes it must be used."
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) says Lithuania is more dependent on nuclear power than any other country in the world. Two 1,500-megawatt RBMK reactors at Ignalina produce more than 80 percent of the country's electricity supply. The reactors are the same design as the unit that caused the Chornobyl disaster in 1986.
Brussels knows decommissioning Ignalina will put an enormous financial burden on the country. When both of Ignalina's RBMK reactors are working, Lithuania can produce almost twice as much energy as its domestic demand. That allows Lithuania to export electricity -- something increasingly important as the Baltic States unify their power grids.
Shutting down one unit at Ignalina would not only reduce exports but also force costly electricity imports. A study by the Swedish firm Grufman Reje found that early closure could cost Lithuania almost $4 billion.
In 1993, Lithuania accepted about $30 million from the EBRD-administered Nuclear Safety Account in exchange for a promise not to replace Ignalina's fuel channels.
Brussels has taken the promise to mean a shutdown early in the next century. But Lithuanian officials now say rechanneling may be the only affordable option. A study last October determined that Ignalina's oldest reactor can operate safely for only three more years without rechanneling.
Babilius says EU funding would allow the oldest unit to be decommissioned as early as next year and the second reactor as soon as 2005. But without aid, the government says Ignalina will continue operating for at least 15 more years. Parliament opens debate on the energy plan in April.
At Bulgaria's Kozloduy plant, Prime Minister Ivan Kostov says it will cost more to decommission the four oldest reactors than it will to raise safety standards to Western levels. As pressure from Brussels for a shut down increases, Kostov is asking parliament to reach consensus on a new national energy policy.
National Electricity Company (NEK) managers say they will run Kozloduy's four VVER-440 megawatt reactors through the end of their design lives -- from 2004 to 2012. The EU wants the oldest reactor shut down by 2002 and others soon after.
Kozloduy is on the Danube River in northwestern Bulgaria. It produces more than 40 percent of the country's electricity. About four percent of electricity production is exported, mostly to Turkey. While decommissioning could put an end to those exports, the trade issues aren't as vital to Sofia as they are for Lithuania.
It was in 1991 that the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) labeled Kozloduy's oldest reactor as the most dangerous in Europe. Since then, vast improvements have been made in equipment, staff qualifications and organization. As Ivan Shilyashki, chairman of Bulgaria's National Energy Committee notes, a team of IAEA inspectors who visited Kozloduy this month praised the progress and said the plant is far safer than eight years ago.
"The IAEA experts have concluded that the power station is in good condition for producing atomic energy and that in its basic aspects, it meets international standards and requirements."
In 1993, about $22 million in equipment was delivered to Kozloduy through the EBRD's Nuclear Safety Account. In exchange, Sofia promised to shut the four VVER-440 reactors by 1998. But Kostov backed away from that pledge last year. National Electricity Company managers supported the move, saying shutdowns were impossible because expected replacement power never became available.
Threats to block EU accession show how backtracking by Sofia, Vilnius and others has forced the European Commission to rethink its approach. At the request of Van den Broek, a panel of senior EU officials late last year drafted a new strategy for improving nuclear safety in the East.
One telling conclusion deals with Russia. The panel said a more "cooperative approach" is needed because senior officials in Moscow are rejecting what they see as "paternalistic assistance" from the EU. The panel also said it is pointless to demand reactor shutdowns as a precondition for aid because many countries stand to lose far more from energy cuts than the funds offered by the West.
Significantly, the panel recommended continued pressure for early closures at Kozloduy and Ignalina.
On Armenia, the EU advisory panel admitted that Yerevan has no other immediate option than to continue operations at the Medzamor plant, which was built on an earthquake fault just 20 kilometers from the capital. The two VVER-440 megawatt reactors at Medzamor were shut down throughout the early 1990s to allay public fears of a nuclear accident after a devastating 1988 earthquake.
But from 1992 to 1994, the country was beset by an energy crisis. Armenia's industrial output fell severely as war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and civil war in Georgia blocked imports of fossil fuels.
Yerevan residents were limited for years to as little as two hours of electricity a day. The situation didn't normalize until late 1995 when one of Medzamor's reactors was brought back on-line. That unit is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2004.
In the meantime, Yerevan is taking steps to deal with its energy crisis. That includes the introduction of more commercial "pay-for-use" billing systems and the development of some domestic energy sources and alternative imports.
The main focus of infrastructure work in Armenia is the completion of the Hrazdan hydropower plant. A project for a new 300 megawatt gas-fired power station, known as Hrazdan Unit No. 5, has received EBRD loans of more than $57 million. The EBRD also plans to help Armenia privatize that plant.
Initial research has been completed on a joint project with Tehran to build a pipeline for liquefied petroleum gas from Iran. But construction hasn't yet begun. Officials in Yerevan say they still need financing for the project. In theory, the pipeline could become part of a network that carries natural gas to Armenia from Turkmenistan via Iran.
The Fuel and Energy Ministry also has set up a joint venture with Russia's Gazprom called Armrosgazprom. That firm already controls Armenia's gas distribution network and plans to generate electrical power from Russian gas deliveries.
The EBRD says Armenia's drive to become less dependent on nuclear energy will help it meet peak demand projections for next year of 1,300 megawatts and of about 2,100 megawatts by the year 2010.
(This is the first of six features from NCA on the status of the nuclear power industry in several nations, East and West.)