Fears for future of Lithuania's nuclear town

( Reuter )- 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 reactor meltdown caused the world's worst nuclear disaster.

With the closure, Lithuania will lose a 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 purpose-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, imported for their nuclear skills from the rest of the former Soviet Union.

At the plant, in a turbine room the length of a soccer pitch, reached through a maze of corridors, 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 are most affected, but the neighboring Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia will also face difficulties sourcing 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 it was safe enough to go on 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 if 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 hydro-power plants. Estonia relies on heavily polluting oil shale, which is set to get more expensive under new taxes on carbon dioxide emissions.

Experts also forecast increasing energy demand in the Baltic states as the economies of the small countries expand.

The natural choice for all three is more gas and coal-fired power stations and Lithuania and Latvia have plans to boost output from such sources. But this poses problems: Russia is sole supplier and its neighbors fear Moscow uses its energy dominance as a political tool.

They have looked anxiously at price disputes between Ukraine and Russia and Russia and Belarus, which led to Russia cutting gas supplies to Ukraine.

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.

The consultancy also said Lithuania needed to build connections to the power grids of Sweden and Poland.

Lithuania is acting on such recommendations. With Poland, Latvia and Estonia it has discussed a new nuclear plant with capacity of between 3,200 and 3,400 megawatts at a cost of 22 billion Lithuanian litas ($9.24 billion).

But talks have got bogged down as Poland wants a third of the output and made agreement conditional upon connecting the plant to its grid. Shevaldin said the planned launch date of 2015 could be delayed at least two years, but Latvian government officials have said 2020 might be more realistic.

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."

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