Lithuania Nuclear Extension Unlike

Friday, March 7, 2008

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Lithuania's nuclear power negotiator said Thursday there is only a small chance the European Union will grant an extension to the country's atomic power plant.

The Soviet-era Ignalina plant, similar in design to the Chernobyl unit that exploded in 1986, must close by 2010 under Lithuania's agreement with the European Union.

But the nuclear-dependent Baltic country has been lobbying for an extension, saying switching off the last reactor at Ignalina will force it to import electricity from Russia, leaving it vulnerable to Kremlin pressure.

"There is 95 percent possibility that Brussels will say 'no.' Five percent is not much, but we must try," Lithuanian nuclear negotiator Aleksandras Abisala told The Associated Press.

Abisala, a former prime minister, said he will try to prove to the European Commission in Brussels next week that Lithuania will run into "major problems" securing reliable energy supplies after 2009.

"I am absolutely positive the EU will help Lithuania. Will the best solution be the new schedule of shutting down the plant? Let's wait and see," he said.

Before joining the EU in 2004, Lithuania had to close its two Soviet-built reactors in Ignalina. It shut down the first in 2004; the second is scheduled for closure at the end of 2009.

The Ignalina reactor provides 70 percent of Lithuania's electricity needs, making Lithuania the second most nuclear-dependent country in the world after France, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Lithuania's electricity grid is still not connected to Europe's, and planned links to Poland, and possibly Sweden, will take years to complete.

This week's decision by Russia's Gazprom energy company to reduce gas supplies to Ukraine has hardened Lithuanians' resolve to fight for an extension.

"Looks like we will need lots more candles in 2010," Andrius Kubilius, the leader of the Conservative party, told a parliamentary hearing Wednesday.

Two years ago, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia _ all Baltic states _ signed an agreement to build a nuclear power plant to replace Ignalina. Poland later joined. But the new facility is not expected to come online until 2020.

In the meantime, activists are gathering signatures to force lawmakers to pass legislation to keep Ignalina open despite what the EU says, and also to hold a national referendum on extending the reactor's operation.

The European Commission has said many times that Lithuania should give up hopes of keeping Ignalina online.

"I do not see how they could change the accession treaty _ ratified by 27 member states _ with some referendum," said Kestutis Sadauskas, head of the European Commission's office in Vilnius.

"That treaty states very clearly that the Ignalina power plant cannot operate after 2010, because the EC does not consider it safe," he said.

European countries, particularly Sweden, have spent hundreds of millions of euros to upgrade safety at the plant and to begin the costly process of decommissioning the reactors, which went online in 1983 and 1987 and have a 30-year design life.

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