Lithuania shuts down nuclear power plant in deal with E.U.

A technician walks by a nuclear reactor head in Visaginas in mid-December as engineers prepared to shut the plant down.
A technician walks by a nuclear reactor head in Visaginas in mid-December as engineers prepared to shut the plant down. (Mindaugas Kulbis/associated Press)
By Liudas Dapkus
Friday, January 1, 2010

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA -- Lithuania's Soviet-built nuclear power plant was shut down late Thursday as part of an agreement with the European Union, ushering in a new era of energy dependence for the small Baltic nation.

The shutdown was greeted with anguish across Lithuania, as the recession-hit country will lose a source of cheap electricity and be forced to import more expensive energy. But the shutdown was mandated by the E.U. because it considers the Chernobyl-type facility unsafe because of inherent design flaws.

Spokeswoman Rasa Shevaldina said the plant ceased producing electricity one hour before midnight local time, according to schedule. The plant's first reactor was shut in 2004, the same year Lithuania joined the E.U.

The RBMK reactor boasted a capacity of 1,320 megawatts, making it one of the largest nuclear reactors in the world.

Lithuania had been one of the two most nuclear-energy-dependent nations, along with France. Last year it tried to convince the E.U. to keep the plant open for another two to three years, but Brussels refused.

"We are keeping our word to our European partners," Energy Minister Arvydas Sekmokas said during a visit to the plant on Thursday.

In April 1986, an earlier, smaller version of the RBMK reactor at Ignalina exploded in Chernobyl, Ukraine, casting a fallout cloud over a wide swath of Europe. It remains the world's worst civilian nuclear catastrophe.

But Lithuanians were proud of the Ignalina plant, which they claimed was reliable after hundreds of millions of euros were invested into safety and upgrades.

"We will witness an unprecedented event today as Lithuania becomes the first country in the world to abandon nuclear energy completely," said Viktor Shevaldin, the plant's chief.

Residents in Visaginas, a town of 25,000, are frustrated that Lithuania will lose the cheap energy source.

"I don't understand it. Why throw away a good thing that could still serve for years?" said Aleksei Tichomirov, a 47-year-old engineer who moved to Lithuania in the 1980s when the plant was built.

"This is my last day at work. There is no job in Visaginas for people like me," he said.


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