Lithuania shuts Soviet-era nuclear reactor

AP News
Posted: Dec 31, 2009 4:13 PM

Officials at Lithuania's Soviet-era nuclear plant say they have shut down the facility's last reactor.

Spokeswoman Rasa Shevaldina says the Chernobyl-type reactor at the Ignalina plant closed on schedule at 11 p.m. local time Thursday.

Lithuania agreed to close the plant as part of a deal to joining the European Union in 2004.

The plant was built in the 1980 and is considered by many to be unsafe since it shares design flaws with the Chernobyl unit that exploded in 1986. The Ignalina plant's first reactor closed in December of that year.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) _ Engineers at Lithuania's Soviet-built nuclear power plant began shutting down a Soviet-build nuclear reactor Thursday as part of an agreement with the European Union, which considers the Chernobyl-type machine unsafe.

The shutdown has been 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.

The Ignalina nuclear plant in the town of Visaginas is scheduled to cease producing electricity at one hour before midnight local time (2100 GMT; 4 p.m. EDT).

Its last working reactor _ ordered closed by the EU because it is considered too similar to the one that exploded at Chernobyl in 1986 _ boasts a capacity of 1,320 megawatts, making it one of the largest nuclear reactors in the world.

Lithuania _ one of the two most nuclear-energy dependent nations along with France _ had been hoping that the EU would allow it to keep the plant open for another two to three years, but Brussels, which demanded the reactor's shutdown as part of Lithuania's membership agreement, flatly refused.

"We are keeping our word to our European partners," Energy Minister Arvydas Sekmokas said during a visit to the plant on New Year's Eve.

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

According to the shutdown plan, output at the Ignalina unit will be reduced from 1,320 megawatts to 700 beginning at 8 p.m. local time (1800 GMT; 1 p.m. EDT) and switched off completely at 11 p.m (2100 GMT; 4 p.m. EDT).

"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. "Only Armenia knows what it means to lose this power _ it had to shut down its reactor after an earthquake but reopened it after six years."

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.

The Ignalina plant supplied over 70 percent of Lithuania's electricity needs _ only France receives more of its kilowatt needs from nuclear power.

The Baltic nation of 3.4 million people will cover the shortfall by buying power on the open market from Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

By 2013, Lithuania hopes to build a new natural-gas power plant, but that would not be enough to meet its own energy needs.

Many Lithuanians are worried that they will become dependent on Russian gas supplies, which they fear may stop without warning given Russia's snap decisions in the past to shut off supplies to Ukraine.

However, Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius does not share the view.

"Lithuania could have done its homework better preparing for the closure, but it won't be left without energy next year. I believe our country, together with its Baltic neighbors, will have an energy market similar to the Nordic countries and other EU regions," he told Lithuanian Radio.