For Baltic town, nuclear shutdown spells trouble

Most Europeans will be relieved if Lithuania's Soviet-era nuclear power plant shuts down as planned by the end of 2009, but residents of the Baltic nation are worried about their post-nuclear future. ( dpa )

When Ignalina's lone reactor closes, Lithuania will lose about 75 per cent of its electricity and will have to rely on Russian energy imports. Lithuanians have anxiously watched the gas supply standoff between Russia and Ukraine, and they fear that Moscow will leverage energy supplies to advance its political goals.

For some 29,000 residents in nearby Visaginas, home to the plant's roughly 3,100 workers, the imminent closure means they also stand to lose their jobs as their town turns into a relic of communism.

Built in 1975 away from main highways, Visaginas used to be off- limits. Moscow exported Russian-speaking experts from the rest of the Soviet Union, making it the only predominantly Russian town in the Baltic country today.

Soviet-style apartment buildings stand tall along its wide boulevards. Nucleus-shaped street lamps shaped adorn the streets. For 30 years, Visaginas has been the home for plant workers and everything about its design shouts out its purpose.

Plant director Viktor Shevaldin, who has worked at Ignalina since it opened, hints that the uncertainty is weighing on the morale of the workers at the 1,500-megawatt reactor.

"Give us a concrete goal, a concrete date and a concrete task and it will be easier for plant's employees and leadership to work. It'll be easier for them to map their future," Shevaldin said.

Under its deal to join the European Union in 2004, Lithuania agreed with the EU to shut down Ignalina. Fears centred on the reactor design, which is similar to the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine where a 1986 explosion led to the world's worst nuclear plant disaster.

Ignalina's first reactor came online in 1983, the second in 1987. In 1990, Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union, construction halted and Lithuania took charge of the plant in 1991. One reactor was shut down when Lithuania joined the EU.

Poland and the three Baltic nations - Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia - plan to build a new nuclear power plant at Ignalina. But it won't be ready by the planned closure, leaving plant workers preparing for the shutdown.

Lithuania hopes to persuade the European Commission, the European Union's executive arm, to extend the plant's life. Supporters have launched a signature drive to put the plant's future to a referendum.

With the plant's closure at least, 1,000 workers would be laid off, Shevaldin said. The rest would have to oversee the deconstruction, but Shevaldin said the financing was unclear.

With the support of the town government, unions launched a signature drive to petition the Lithuanian parliament to extend the plant's life.

But Natalija, a 22-year-old travel agent in Visaginas, said town residents believe other Lithuanians don't care about the plant's future.

Ignalina's closure will affect Lithuania's 3.4 million people, but also Latvia and Estonia.

Latvia supplements its hydro-electric plants with energy from Lithuania and plans to build a gas or coal-fired plant of its own. Estonia relies on oil shale and says it may build a nuclear plant.

While Visaginas residents are edgy about the future, town officials are seeking ways to diversify its economy.

"If a large industry is leaving town, it creates bad thoughts among the people," Visaginas' mayor Vytautas Rachkauskas told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa in an interview.

He also worries that nuclear-power expertise will be lost. "You need to groom good experts in their fields 15 to 20 years," Rachkauskas said.

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