Aging Nuclear Plant Has Town on Edge

ReutersScientists performing decommissioning work at one of the Lithuanian plant's reactors, which was shut down in 2004.
VISAGINAS, Lithuania -- When Lithuania's sole nuclear power station closes next year, European Union officials will sigh with relief, but nearby residents are already fretting over the future of their town.

The EU's concern is safety. The Ignalina plant has the same type of reactors as Chernobyl in Ukraine, where a 1986 meltdown caused the world's worst nuclear accident.

With the closure, Lithuania will lose the source of 70 percent of its electricity, and the population of nearby Visaginas, one in 10 of whom work at the plant, are worried about their future.

Visaginas, with its streets of concrete apartment blocks, was built for workers at Ignalina, where the first reactor came on line in 1983 and the second in 1987. It houses Lithuania's highest concentration of Russians, brought in for their nuclear skills from the rest of the former Soviet Union.

At the plant, in a turbine room the length of a football pitch, huge cogs have been dismantled and lie waiting for transport to the scrap heap.

"It is a very regrettable decision, as many of us will lose our jobs," said plant worker Mikhail Nosyrev, who was shifting equipment in the cavernous, metal-lined first reactor, which was closed in 2004 under Lithuania's agreement to join the EU.

The second is to close at the end of 2009.

Retired army officer Antanas Grybauskas said, "People are concerned about how they will support their families, where to get another job."

Lithuania's 3.4 million people and its industries will be most affected, but the neighboring Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia will also face difficulties getting their power.

Across a huge concrete wall, the second turbine can be heard whirring away, pumping out power. People at the plant said closing it was wrong and that it was safe enough to continue operating.

"The best time to close the plant would be 2011-2012 after guarantees of energy supplies are in place [for Lithuania], otherwise the closure will be very risky," said the director general of Ignalina, Viktor Shevaldin.

At the plant since 1983, he is reluctantly getting ready to follow instructions to turn off the second reactor. He wants to keep 2,000 of the 3,200 employees to oversee decommissioning, but wonders whether international donors will pay the 30 million euros ($44.60 million) a year this would cost. The alternative is a skeleton staff of 1,000.

Ignalina was built to supply power to industries in the northwest of the former Soviet Union, and Lithuania took over after regaining its independence from Moscow in 1991. Latvia imports electricity from Lithuania to supplement supplies from its own hydropower plants. Estonia relies on heavily polluting oil shale, which is set to get more expensive under new taxes on carbon dioxide emissions.

A report for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development urged Lithuania to upgrade one gas-fired power plant, build a new gas-fired plant and one new nuclear plant.

People in Visaginas are worried, but officials are less concerned. Deputy Mayor Dalia Straupaite said she was sure the new plant would eventually be built.

"I was worried a few years ago, but now I am optimistic," she said in her office. "I think the Ignalina nuclear power plant could become a tourist attraction after the closure."