Monday, April 26, 1999 Published at 12:55 GMT 13:55 UK
Europe's next Chernobyl?
The Ignalina reactor has the same design faults of Chernobyl
Darius Bazargan reports from Lithuania
Thirteen years ago the world experienced its worst ever nuclear accident following a reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukraine.
But despite the thousands of deaths and environmental damage that will take centuries to clear up, several nuclear reactors of exactly the same design continue to operate throughout the former Soviet Union.
To add to the safety worries, the plant is built on a tectonic crack and last year alone Ignalina experienced over 20 low-level accidents, four of which led to temporary shut downs.
But Ignalina also provides Lithuania with more than 85% of its electrical power, making this small Baltic state the most nuclear reliant country on the planet. Many Lithuanians argue that closing down Ignalina to satisfy western safety concerns would be a devastating blow to the country's fledgling market economy.
But the fate of the Ignalina plant has become a serious stumbling block to Lithuania's ambitions of joining the European Union. EU officials say the previous Lithuanian government already promised not to extend the working life of the reactors beyond 2007.
The current government says that decision was "a mistake" and argues that with reactor core replacements, the plant can run for at least another 20 years.
But Henrik Schmiegelow, the EU's ambassador to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, says that no matter how much money is invested, Ignalina cannot be made safe because the fundamental design is flawed.
The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant operates two Soviet-era RBMK-1500 water cooled reactors - the most powerful nuclear reactors in existence. They feed off the nearby Druksiai Lake and by returning heated water to the lake, have raised its temperature by three degrees, prompting concern from local environmentalists.
But this is a minor worry compared to some of the problems at Ignalina. The two reactors, both of which are more powerful than the ones at Chernobyl, have no protective containment shells.
Lithuania's Prime Minister, Gedeminas Vagnorious, says that closing Ignalina would cost Lithuania between two and six billion US dollars, money the country simply doesn't have. Vagnorious says the EU want Ignalina closed not for safety reasons, but in order top prevent Lithuanian access to lucrative energy export markets - an argument dismissed as facile by EU officials.
The EU says that if Lithuania wants to join Ignalina must be closed down, but the Lithuanian government says it simply can't afford it.
At the moment the situation is deadlocked and until a political solution is reached, whatever the dangers, the reactors at Ignalina will keep running - and they are 300 KM closer to western Europe than Chernobyl.