May 24th 2007 From Economist.com
“COMMUNISM is Soviet power plus electrification.” Lenin’s quote pretty much summed up 1945-91 for the Baltic states. It meant, on the one hand, dictatorship, mass murder, deportations, Russification, the trashing of languages and cultures, the defacing of cities and the countryside devastated by collectivisation. On the other hand were some modern power stations. Chiefly one: Lithuania’s Ignalina nuclear reactor was, at its pre-Chernobyl peak, the largest in the world. Now Soviet power is a fading memory—and electricity supply is at risk.
At the time of the struggle to regain independence, Lithuanians hated Ignalina. Now that it’s theirs, they feel differently. But the European Union wants to close it, and the Lithuanian government has reluctantly promised to do so by 2009.
The costs of decommissioning are eased by hefty EU subsidies. But that’s not the problem. Ignalina generates 80% of Lithuania’s power and also exports electricity to neighbouring countries. A replacement, to be jointly built by Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland, exists only on paper and won’t be running until 2015—according to optimistic estimates.
That gap will be filled by burning extra gas and oil, supplied from Russia, and importing electricity, probably also from Russia. It is hard to imagine that this will come without political strings attached. Lithuania will be negotiating with Russia from a position of weakness. Even if the EU doesn’t mind that, it should shudder at the thought of the millions of tonnes of unwelcome carbon dioxide emitted by burning substitute fuels.
The effects of the EU’s nuclear-phobia have already been visible in the Balkans. Forcing Bulgaria to close two reactors at Kozloduy as a price for joining the EU forced that country to slash electricity exports to the western Balkans, causing power shortages in Albania and Macedonia. Bulgarian officials warned the EU about this; seemingly, nobody was listening.
To avoid a similar mess in the Baltic region, the obvious solution is to extend the life of Ignalina for another ten years, at least until the new nuclear power plant comes onstream. This should be a simple choice. Proceeding as planned is dirty, dangerous and expensive. It means more carbon emissions; it endangers the EU’s energy security in one of the most vulnerable member states; and it will cost a lot of money that could be better spent elsewhere.
Keeping Ignalina open costs nothing except the pride of some twitchy green-tinged bureaucrats and politicians. By retreating from a hastily-adopted and out-of-date position, the EU will gain lots of clean energy in a place where it is needed, and shore up European solidarity in a region where it is sorely lacking.
What about safety? It is worth remembering that Ignalina’s oldest and riskiest reactor was closed in 2004. The one still in operation bears little resemblance to the Soviet-era monster that Lithuania inherited. Your columnist remembers a trip there in 1992. The control room was thick with cigarette smoke. Cables in inflammable PVC sheaths looped crazily from the ceilings in the endless corridors. The visitors were allowed to stand on top of the reactor core, steam gently hissing from what they were assured was an “unimportant” pipe.
Now the plant has been modernised by experts from Sweden (which is downwind of the plant, and has a close interest in its safe operation). Electronics and control systems have been overhauled. The staff have been retrained. Ignalina can run safely for another decade.
Lithuania, commendably, doesn’t want to be seen as reneging on a deal. But this promise was extracted under duress, and the costs of keeping it are preposterously high. The government should reopen talks on Ignalina. And the EU and its member states should back down.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
May 24th 2007 From Economist.com