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How Lithuania killed its “golden goose”: birth and death of Ignalina NPP

Ignalina NPP

As it is known, the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) was the only NPP in the Baltics, but now it is dead. Ignalina’s power unit No.1 was decommissioned yet on December 31, 2004 (Lithuania joined the European Union in the same year). The power unit No.2 was closed down five years later. The service life of both the units would expire in 2028-2032, but for the plant’s decommissioning… It is also specific that after closing down the NPP under pressure of European bureaucrats, Vilnius regrets profoundly, as, in fact, it has lost its energy independence.

Turning from exporter into importer of electric power

The construction of the NPP in Ignalina was launched in 1975. The plant was put into exploitation in seven years. It is noteworthy that the construction was inherently planned on the Belarusian shore of Lake Drisvyata

(Drisvyata/Druksiai is a transboundary lake shared between Belarus and Lithuania). However, it was decided later to build the plant on the Lithuanian shore of the lake, where the soil is, was more appropriate for construction of such facility. Simultaneously with the construction of the NPP, they launched construction of Snechkus (now Visaginas) satellite town for the families of the NPP staff in Ignalina District.

In March of 1980, the foundation of the first power unit was laid. In two years, the construction of the second unit was launched. They planned to build four power units with RBMK-1500 reactors at Ignalina NPP (it was the world’s highest capacity reactor at that moment). In 1983, the construction of the third power unit was launched. On December 31 of the same year, the first power unit was brought into operation. The second power unit was put into operation on August 31 1987 – it took longer than expected to run it, as the disaster happened in Chernobyl. The third power unit was not put into operation, as movements for Lithuania’s withdrawal from the Soviet Union gathered pace by that time. Like in other republics, the fighters against the Soviet power used among others also the environmental rhetoric, claiming that “the occupants damage their nature.” As a consequence, in 1989 the construction of the power unit that was completed by 70% then was stopped. In 15 years, the building and equipment of the power unit was demolished and sold in parts.

In 1991, the Ignalina NPP was transferred under jurisdiction of the Republic of Lithuania. It became the 31st country in the world to use nuclear power for own economy. To find out how important was that facility for the country, just look at these figures. The record-breaking indicator for the nuclear energy of Lithuania was registered in 1993, when the Ignalina NPP generated 12.26bn kWh electricity.  It is 88.1% of total electricity generated in that country that year.

It is not surprising that the given indicator was included in the Guinness Book of Records. There was time when Ignalina employed up to 5000 people and supplied electricity not only to Lithuania, but also to Estonia, Latvia, Belarus and even the neighboring Russian regions. Considering the crucial importance of the NPP, the authorities allowed its staff – mostly ethnic Russians – to exist peacefully under authority of permanent director Viktor Shevaldin. Suffice it to say that the Ignalina staff was using Russian as their working language, despite that fact that the Russian language was given the status of a foreign language in Lithuania.

The trouble came unexpected. On February 19, 2001, the government of Lithuania, which had already set a course for joining the European Union, approved the project of decommissioning its only nuclear power plant under pressure of the EU. Brussels motivated its demand with the security reasons, saying the reactors at Ignalina are of the same type as the ones at the Chernobyl NPP. According to the IAEA, the Ignalina NPP was on the list of the world’s most reliable plants, which did not comfort the European officials. Now, Lithuanian politicians have to admit that Europe simply got rid of its rival in the energy market. Ex-president of Lithuania Rolandas Paksas, who negotiated with the EU over the issue, has recently told a local newspaper: “The promise to shut down the Ignalina NPP was the only chance to launch negotiations for joining the EU. It was a kind of toll from us… As to the second power unit, it was our mistake.  In actual fact, the Lithuanian politicians did not fight for the second power unit.”

Accident site

The ex-president of Lithuania is at least not absolutely right.  Vilnius had tried to achieve a permission in Brussels to extend the plant’s service life for several years. However, it was vain efforts. The public did not welcome the shutdown of the plant either. Many said then that the authorities are killing a golden goose. “The severities after the plant’s shutdown will be felt for several years, and the electricity price will hike by approximately 30 percent” Andrius Kubilius, then prime minister of Lithuania, warned before the shutdown of the second power unit. Sure enough, Lithuania had to shift from export to import of electric power after the shutdown of the Soviet-era plant. It was no longer profitable to generate electric power using the reserve capacities.

The country faced also other difficulties connected with decommissioning of the nuclear power plant and construction of a reliable waste storage facility. The construction lagged behind the schedule for four years and required more and more funds, which the EU’s financing for these purposes was insufficient. This could not but affect consumers: the electricity price doubled and the heating price increased fourfold in Lithuania within 2.5 years after NPP’s shutdown.

During the last years, the Ignalina NPP is covered in media mainly because of various emergency situations at the facility. Since Lithuania has been fighting for approval of a new project of the “new generation” nuclear power plant for already ten years, the opponents of the project very often exaggerated such emergency situations. For instance, on November 8 2017, a short circuit at the plant disabled one of the generators. On September 27 2006, turbo-generator of one of the reactors was suspended because of failure. A similar situation happened in August 2005. Then, the power unit was disabled after a short circuit.

Another loud incident happened on October 5 2010 – failure of the primary system pump. Nearly three hundred cubic meters of radioactive substances leaked into the process compartment under pressure. The staff had to remove the poisonous substance on their own, as the plant had no special robots that are used in such situations. Yet, according to official information, the accident had no serious consequences and no chemical reagents and radioactive substances leaked into the territory beyond the area under control of the NPP. 

Meantime, Anatoly Ivanov, a journalist at the Lithuanian Courier Russian-language newspaper, met with the staff members who participated in liquidation of the accident. In his words, not everything was that easy. “Undoubtedly, the people dealing with the ‘dirty’ substances were exposed to radiation, as they had to collect the waste, deliver it to the territory of the NPP and dump it. The Lithuanian Nuclear Power Safety Inspectorate was informed of the emergency situation, but it agreed with the NPP Administration to make a short statement on the accident, as the radioactive waste was left in the territory of the plant. In fact, it was a serious accident. The public was misinformed.”

By the way, the Ignalina NPP that was officially shut down by that time was headed by Osvaldas Čiukšys, General Director.  His salary (25,000 litas or 7,600 euros) was twice as high as the salary of the former head Viktor Shevaldin. Many Lithuanian experts were discontented at the plant’s shutdown process. Many blamed the NPP Administration for non-purposeful use of the billions of litas that were provided for decommissioning of the plant. This is what led to emergency situations threatening the life and health of both the Ignalina staff and residents of the adjacent communities. 

Nevertheless, despite all problems and hardships, the “early death” of Ignalina gave birth to an ambitious idea of building a new NPP that looked to involve also Latvia, Poland and Estonia. Yet, this is a topic for another article…

Vyacheslav Samoylov for EADaily

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