Nuclear fever in the Baltics

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna) - Four Baltic nations - Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland - have decided to build a powerful nuclear plant together.

The initiative belongs to Lithuania, the only partner that knows what a luxury it is. In the Soviet Union, it had a two-unit RBMK-1500 nuclear power plant on the banks of Lake Druksiai near the town of Ignalina. Lithuania had plenty of energy and exported it to neighbors.

But the situation changed when the Baltic nations applied for European Union (EU) membership. No country can enter that organization for free. For Lithuania, the price of entry was very high - it had to shut down its nuclear power plant. There were no technical reasons for that - the station was working without a hitch, but the European family wanted Lithuania's complete disinfection from the Soviet spirit.

The EU claimed that the RBMK-type reactors were the same that caused the Chernobyl disaster. But the RBMK unit was a water-cooled graphite moderated nuclear reactor and not a twin of Chernobyl, but instead a very successful version of the same model.

Before Lithuania, Bulgaria also found itself in a similar predicament and tried to keep its Kozloduy nuclear power plant, but the EU was adamant and Sofia had to comply with the demand.

Now the situation repeats itself in Lithuania. The first unit of its nuclear plant, which worked flawlessly for 20 years, was decommissioned in December 2004. The second unit will be shut down no later than December 2009. In the meantime, the station meets 74% of Lithuania's electricity demand. The country is about to lose its electric self-sufficiency.

Vilnius understands the urgency of the situation. It has decided to build a new nuclear power plant on the same Ignalina site but under a Western pattern.

Lithuania wants the new station to be as powerful as the old one, so that it can not only meet its own electricity requirements but also export it abroad. But this national dream is expensive, and Lithuania cannot implement it single-handedly. This is why it has come with an idea of a consortium and invited its neighbors to take part. All are luckily united by the desire to become energy independent from Moscow.

But the members of the consortium cannot agree on the division of the future product. Poland insists on no less than 30% of the energy but Lithuania will not accept this. In the course of debates Poland has become enthusiastic about the idea of a nuclear plant and wants to build its own plant by 2020 regardless of the Ignalina project.

Vilnius is getting nervous - it wants to have a nuclear power plant as soon as possible, and has already made it clear that a tender will be very quick. Its favorite is the French-German nuclear concern AREVA. On February 11-12, AREVA president Ives Guenon visited Vilnius and somewhat cooled Lithuanian enthusiasm. He said: "One can dream about anything. But given the lack of agreement between the partners, it is unrealistic to build a new nuclear power plant by 2015. It is only possible to talk optimistically about 2020."

Russia takes part in all international tenders, but the Lithuanian project is of no interest to it - what's the point of competition if the winner is already known in advance? Russia is interested in a tender for the decommissioning of the Ignalina nuclear plant, and has a chance to win it because it is based on Russian technologies.

But some aspects of the nuclear projects in the southern Baltics are more sensitive. The Kaliningrad Region is surrounded by foreign nuclear plants: two operating ones - Ignalina (Lithuania) and Khmelnitskaya (Ukraine) - one will be built near Mogilev (Belarus), and another one is planned by Poland.

The Russian enclave will have to face all the risks involved in the operation of nuclear plants and will not stand to gain anything. It will have to buy electricity abroad at market prices.

The Kaliningrad Region is a special economic zone. Implementing projects linked with this status requires reliable access to electricity that a local nuclear plant could provide. A foreign bridge via which the bulk of energy is brought to the region is becoming more and more fragile. When the Ignalina plant is shut down in a year, the region will be very hard put - the plant meets 30% of its energy requirements.

The Kaliningrad Region needs reliable energy supplies also because for the time being it imports energy from NATO countries. It is an open secret that nuclear forces are deployed in the region. It may face a threat of an energy blockade in the event of political complications.

A nuclear plant in the region could resolve not only energy issues, but also become Russia's trump in a geopolitical context.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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