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Last Updated: Friday, 16 April, 2004, 05:24 GMT 06:24 UK
Lithuania facing nuclear fall out
By Ben Richardson
BBC News Online business reporter in Visaginas, Lithuania

Lithuania has agreed to close its Chernobyl-style reactors after joining the European Union on 1 May. In the third of a series of reports from Poland and Lithuania, BBC News Online looks at how it will keep that promise.

Ignalina nuclear reactor
No smoke from a chain reaction

Lithuania's Ignalina nuclear plant is keen to play up its environmental credentials.

A video for visitors cuts between workers on the reactor-room floor and cows grazing in nearby fields. The sky is streaked by a rainbow.

Get closer to the reactor buildings, however, and it becomes more evident why the European Union wants to shut down the plant that recently celebrated its 20th birthday.

The concrete is showing its age and the ruins of a planned third reactor are still visible after Russia's Chernobyl nuclear disaster brought construction to a premature halt.

Controversial

Some environmentalists have called Ignalina a disaster waiting to happen because it is based on the same design as the Russian plant that exploded in 1986, belching radioactivity and turning the countryside into a dead zone.

Had Lithuania not agreed to pull the plug, it probably would not be among the 10 countries joining the EU on 1 May.

According to the timetable agreed with Brussels, the first reactor will shut at the end of this year, with the second scheduled for closure by 2010.

Shutting down will cost the best part of 1bn euros and the decision to do so is proving controversial.

Fear

Lithuania relies on Ignalina for about 80% of its power and many of the population see it as a key part of economic independence.

Even one reactor can produce enough electricity for domestic use, plus a healthy surplus for export.

Viktor Sevaldin
Mr Sevaldin wants people to see nuclear power as clean and safe

Viktor Sevaldin is Ignalina's Russian-born director.

He has worked at the plant since it started and sees himself as a pioneer of the technology that helped build it.

Speaking in his cavernous office, his unwillingness to close is evident.

He talks about the safety record and of the dedicated workers who keep a vigilant eye on every dial and counter.

And although he understands why people are worried, he reckons that it is due to fear and ignorance rather than sound science.

Employment

Mr Sevaldin is at pains to explain that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, security and safety have been constantly upgraded with the help of the EU and Sweden.

"The irony is that the power plant is at the peak of its safety," he says.

"For sure, you will not get a repeat of Chernobyl here."

Visaginas
Visaginas is trying to attract investment as well as tourists

His biggest concern is the fate of the plant's 3,600 workers, most of whom live in nearby Visaginas.

The importance of Ignalina on the local economy is evident at the end of the day shift as a convoy of cars and buses head back into the town of almost 35,000.

It has been like that since the construction of the town was started in 1975, well into the Cold War.

The site, in a dense pine forest, was chosen for its proximity to the railway line that ran from St Petersburg and would bring nuclear fuel.

Today, Visaginas trumpets its green and leafy streets, but as a visitor it is difficult to shake the idea that the trees were originally left more to hide the place than to decorate it.

Devastation

In a 2001 report, the EU said that there were three possible future scenarios for Visaginas.

Entrance to the Ignalina plant
The clock is ticking for Visaginas

The first one they called "regeneration," the second was named "green field" and the third got the chilling title of "town-zombie".

Locals, many of whom came from Russia to work at the plant, are convinced that closing it down would kill the city.

There is little other industry in a region that the EU calls underdeveloped even by Lithuanian standards.

Rising prices

And the effects may reach further afield.

According to the same report, the "decommissioning of Ignalina will have a direct impact on the whole social-economic situation of the country."

Two hours drive to the south in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, 30-year-old mother of two Viktoria Valickowa is certain of what it will mean.

"Prices will rise and that is a problem," she says from behind her market stall of amber necklaces and jewellery.

"Pay is not very high here."

Bright future

Ignalina visitor centre
A model of safety and efficiency?

The concern among some environmentalists is that Lithuania's politicians may not press too hard to close down Ignalina when faced with the stark choice of alienating voters or the EU.

Either that, or they will push to replace the aging Soviet reactors with a more modern and supposedly safer plant.

That is the outcome that makes most sense to Mr Sevaldin, and he visibly perks up when explaining the benefits of fission over fossil fuels.

"Nuclear power is a very young form of electricity generation, but it has made very great achievements to date," he says.

"It is something for the future."

The question facing the EU and Lithuania today is how bright they want that future to be.





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