The arguments just won’t go away. And while they persist, a nuclear Baltic looks likely to continue in Europe.
Its backers say nuclear power is vital in order to meet the world’s growing energy requirements; they also say it’s a clean fuel, able to meet the challenge of climate change and an ideal substitute for fossil fuels.
Others disagree; critics say that despite various technological improvements over the years, nuclear power is still unsafe. The issue of disposing of mountains of nuclear waste – which can remain active and dangerous for thousands of years – has not been resolved.
The 2.8 million people of the small Baltic republic of Lithuania are keenly aware of these different points of view. In former times, when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, what was one of the most powerful nuclear plants in the world was built at Ignalina, in the east of the country.
As part of a 2004 agreement to join the European Union (EU), Lithuania agreed to close Ignalina. Brussels said the facility was unsafe: its construction and design is similar to that of the ill-fated nuclear plant at Chernobyl in Ukraine, with no proper containment shell to capture any escape of radioactivity.
“Officials at Ostrovets say strict building codes and all safety features have been adhered to”
Billions of euros are now being spent decommissioning Ignalina; spokespeople at the plant told Climate News Network it will take the 2,000 workers still at the site 18 more years to complete the work.
While Ignalina is being dismantled, another nuclear power facility is coming on stream across the border in Belarus – less than 50 kilometres from Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital.
The 2,400 MW plant at Ostrovets, in north-west Belarus, has been built mainly by ROSATOM, the Russian state-owned nuclear and energy company. Throughout its design and construction phases, Lithuania has raised strong objections to the Ostrovets facility.
Belarus and the Baltic states, including Lithuania, were among the territories most severely affected by radioactive fallout from the explosion at Chernobyl. Vilnius says ROSATOM and others involved in the construction at Ostrovets are not properly addressing safety issues.
Lithuania says it hasn’t been consulted on the environmental impact of the project. It also says that numerous accidents during construction work at the plant – reported to include a crane operator dropping and damaging a nuclear pressure vessel – indicate that building work has been rushed and not properly supervised.
Vilnius says that – as was the case at Chernobyl – any problems at the Belarus plant are hushed up and never disclosed.
Officials at Ostrovets say strict building codes and all safety features have been adhered to.
They point to a report last year by EU inspectors which gave a generally positive assessment of the project, though the EU said its findings were mainly concerned with seismic activity at the site and did not cover overall safety.
Russia has advanced a $10 billion loan to Belarus to cover the construction of the Ostrovets facility.
Critics of the plant say its cost is unlikely to be recouped. Belarus has limited use for the large amount of power Ostrovets will produce when it comes fully on stream. Lithuania and other neighbouring EU states are unlikely to import power from the controversial project.
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