The Lithuanian government is intent on polishing up the country's image as a modern nation, eight years after it joined the European Union.
In July authorities invited European reporters to Ignalina and the neighbouring prospective new nuclear power plant, Visaginas. Three arrived, and were asked to strip off their clothes and don Soviet-style protective uniforms, opening the doors to Ignalina’s chamber of secrets.
Lithuania is already at an advanced stage of decommissioning. This means disposing the huge amounts of radioactive material in the Soviet-built plant, with the ultimate goal of leaving a clean greenfield site on the plant's land.
Ina Dauksiene, a communication officer at Ignalina who guided the journalists, did not hide her feelings about the heavy price her country paid for its EU accession in 2004. Back then, EU authorities asked Vilnius to close down what she described as a perfectly safe nuclear power plant.
Dauskiene has spent 16 years at Ignalina, where 2,000 employees still work on decommissioning activities, down from 5,000 when the central generator was still producing electricity.
Highly radioactive rods from Ignalina’s reactors rest in water for five years to cool down, before they are locked up in casks – temporary storage before a more lasting solution is found. One rod normally provides energy for five years. Six thousand of the 22,000 rods have already been cooled down, but 16,000 rods are still awaiting treatment.
No similar Soviet-built nuclear plant has ever been decommissioned before. Lacking relevant know-how, Lithuania has seen the plant's decommissioning price tag skyrocket.
In the best case scenario, major decommissioning activities will continue until 2029. By then, a greenfield site will replace the compound, while the radioactive material will be kept in storage for centuries.
But in the worst case, the central generator will be mothballed and close its doors, keeping contamination inside the building until funding is made available. This, authorities argue, will happen in the absence of extra financial support from the European Union.
Last November, Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius slammed the European Commission for putting forward an additional €210 million for Lithuania under the 2014-2020 EU budget, intended to cover decommissioning activities until 2017.
According to Kubilius, this sum is “not acceptable” for Lithuania and does not comply with the terms of the country’s accession treaty. Lithuania estimates it will need €770 million in EU support until 2029 to top its own funding. The total sum for decommissioning Ignalina has been estimated at €2.3 billion.
According to Ignalina’s director-general, Zilvinas Jurskus, this funding gap is “impossible” to find in the country’s budget.
The EU has been providing support for decommissioning three Soviet-built central generators in the new member countries (see background), but it remains unclear what kind of financial assistance would be possible under the EU's new long-term budget.
The so-called “negotiating box” left behind by the Danish EU presidency does touch upon further support for decommissioning the remaining Soviet-ear nuclear units in Lithuania, Slovakia and Bulgaria. It reads in the following terms (square brackets indicate points that negotiations are ongoing):
“In order to support nuclear safety in Europe [support will continue to] OR [a final support will] be granted to the decommissioning of the following nuclear power plants:
- [x] million euro to Ignalina in Lithuania for the period [2014 – x];
- [x] million euro to Bohunice in Slovakia for the period [2014 – x];
- [x] million euro to Kozloduy in Bulgaria for the period [2014 – x].”
Jurskus said that if decommissioning was deferred, its costs would have to be reconsidered with an additional €30 million each year just for maintaining the nuclear plant under lock-down. Finding specialists will also be harder after ten years or more as most of the plant's personnel is currently over 50 and is likely to be retired by then.
“The further we postpone, the more it will cost,” Jurskus said.
Asked if the Ignalina decommissioning could not be seen by the EU as an investment for similar activities in Russia, which has similar reactors, none of which has been decommissioned so far, he said that Brussels “didn’t care” about such aspects.
Nuclear power plants similar to Ignalina are operating in Russia with some refurbishing, including near St. Petersburg, without any plans for phase out, he said.
Jurskus said that even with the downside of the decommissioning, Ignlaina has been a “good project” for his country, as it has been able to provide for years extremely cheap electricity, at 1 to 2 eurocents per Kilowatt, he said.
Lithunania plans to build another nuclear power plant, named Visaginas, next to the site of Ignalina. The site relies on Japan's Hitachi and US giant General Electric as strategic investors. However, the project still leaves many question marks open and is not expected to be completed soon.