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Published 2012 07 26, 09:13

600-kilometer bike trek to Visaginas easier than doing political battle over it

The 600-kilometer Vilnius-Visaginas bike trek that the head of the Lithuanian government, Andrius Kubilius, and a bunch of his most devoted-and physically fit buddies set out for last weekend and are to complete this weekend may be beneficial for the Conservatives not only for exercise reasons.
Žygio dalyviai
PM Kubilius with his fellow conservatives on a cycling trip.

The muscle aches from pedaling will soothe the grief following the loss of the parliament vote for an advisory referendum on the Visaginas nuclear power plant project. Kubilius and his parliamentary fraction the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) had long bristled against the idea of the soon-to-be-held referendum. But, with the 62 pro-referendum votes coming from the Seimas election-minded opposition and some from the ruling coalition itself, the Conservatives conceded defeat.

Working for the Visaginas cause, the Kubilius-led bikers took to the road to do what they can’t in the sterile parliament hall - meet grassroots voters in rural towns and villages and let them hear the pro-nuke arguments from the lips of the government head himself.

The question remains, though, as to whether it will be enough to bend the project-adverse public opinion.

A major position shift

The breakdown for the vote for the referendum is: 22 Social Democrats voted for it, 9 votes came from the Labor Party, 12 were added by the MPs of the Order and Justice Party, another 12 votes came from the Mixed Group, the support of the Christian Party was 6 votes, and the single pro-referendum vote from the idea-opposing TS-LKD came from Jonas Šimėnas.

The non-binding but advisory referendum is scheduled along with the Lithuanian parliamentary election on 14 October.

Though visibly sour after the vote, Kubilius tried to quench his exasperation, downplaying the results by attributing them to “election preparations.”

“As I am looking at the Social Democrats and some Laborists, who now seem lost, I want to thank them in the name of our party, the TS-LKD, because all of them are providing us with a very good subject for which, in fact, they themselves have pledged to stand for… in their election programs. Thus, my dear colleagues, I encourage you to proceed with implementation of your programs and again thank you for helping us [the TS-LKD] to maintain the subject of energy independence and security as a core subject,” Kubilius said after the vote.

He earlier expressed support for the referendum if it were to take place no earlier than 2014.

Seimas flip-floppers

However, Jurgis Razma, an influential Conservative, did not conceal his disappointment when speaking to The Baltic Times: “Unfortunately, there are a lot of flip-floppers in the ranks of the Labor, Social Democrat and Order and Justice parties. Many of them had voted for the LEO project, allowing private capital to take on building the Visaginas NPP; they endorsed the Visaginas project at the end of June, but with the elections nearing, they changed their positions.”

Razma notes that the formulation of the referendum - “I support construction of a new nuclear power plant in the Republic of Lithuania”- is very indefinite and therefore inappropriate. “It says nothing of the Visaginas nuclear power plant. The formulation is very misleading, taking into account the explanatory work that has been done on the project,” Razma said.

Catering to anti-nuke moods?

Though the Social Democrats praised the decision of the referendum, it remains yet to be seen how their position on the Visaginas NPP project will play out already in the new Parliament. “It’s hard not to think that the Social Democrats are simply catering to the anti-nuke mood before the elections. People may have forgotten that, just four years ago, they vehemently spearheaded and pushed the other nuclear project, LEO, which foresaw building the same Visaginas nuclear power plant, but only with the attraction of private capital. People’s short memory may be in favor of the Social Democrats today, but, provided they will clinch enough seats in the elections and have to form a new ruling coalition, they will face an uneasy challenge: to scrap the idea or amend it significantly. Or, with support for the project from the current parliament opposition partners, who are very likely to form a new government, stay in the new parliament’s opposition. Either way, it can be a very costly matter to Lithuania in a long run,” says Mindaugas Sičiūnas, political analyst.

In defense of the stance

After the ballot, Seimas’ Social Democrats scrambled to eke out and stave off accusations of flip-floppery.

“Let me make this clear: Social Democrats are not against atomic energy itself. We are only against this particular Visaginas project. It is obvious that even MPs lack information about it, leave alone the public. The ruling coalition is extremely secretive about the project. [It was] English law under which the concession agreement was signed, not Lithuanian or international law. That should not be the case when we speak of such a venture like Visaginas. We all just want to know more about the project,” Česlovas Juršėnas, a parliament veteran Social Democrat, said.

He fears that the Visaginas project can be too costly for Lithuania. “We have now all been indebted by over 50 billion litas [14 billion euros] for the project. And we are still in need of a lot of money. How far can we wade into debt? And how will we pay them?” the parliamentarian asks.

Referendum’s impact

After the vote, Lithuanian Energy Minister Arvydas Sekmokas rushed to calm everyone down, emphasizing that the negotiations with the regional partners, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland, will not be affected by the decision to hold a plebiscite. “It only binds us to a certain obligation to provide the public, by all means and channels, as much information as possible about the benefits and profits of the Visaginas nuclear power plant project for Lithuania,” Sekmokas stressed.

“The good thing for the Visaginas nuke supporters is the referendum is not binding [leaders of the referendum failed to collect the necessary 100,000 supporting signatures]. But with the anticipated results against the nuclear venture, the project opponents’ stance will become a lot firmer. It is hard to predict the development, but obviously more severe battles over the project, already in the new parliament, could be expected. And, undoubtedly, the issue may be defining in forming the new ruling coalition in the fall,” Sičiūnas says.

Ultimatum for Lithuania

Another setback for the Conservatives after the referendum vote loss came from the delegation of EP euro-parliamentarians who, having visited Lithuania, came up with unfavorable conclusions on how Lithuania has spent EU money allocated for the closure of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP). Lithuania has to deal with the rows concerning the INPP as soon as possible. The deadline to reach an understanding with Nukem Technologies – the Russian-owned German company in charge of decommissioning projects – was given as 17 July. If an agreement is not reached, the EU funding may be cut for the shutdown work. This was the main message given by the 8-member EP delegation.

Michael Theurer, head of the delegation, criticized the dragging of the project. “Auditors found that the storage installation works have been behind schedule for almost four years now... This is a very long time as it is crucial to remove radioactive material from the reactor. All the responsible authorities must improve the management, otherwise the delays will affect the financing,” Theurer warned.

Lithuania faces the most challenges

Energy Minister Arvydas Sekmokas, however, showed confidence that Lithuania will be able to overcome the problems. “There will be funds, and we will go on with the decommissioning work as effectively as possible; our goal remains the same - to continue this work together with the EU till the very end. I do not doubt whatsoever that we will reach this goal,” he said.

Compared to Bulgaria and Slovakia, that are also in the process of decommissioning their nuclear power plants, Lithuania seems to be encountering the most challenges. The EU intends to provide just $613.8 million for the period from 2014-2020 for decommissioning all three countries’ power plants, but Lithuania is lobbying for an extra $945 million for the INPP alone, a subject of dispute between Lithuania and the European Commission.

EP concerns addressed

Apparently, Lithuania has addressed the EP concerns by sending to Brussels a plan addressing the technical problems regarding manufacturing and certification of spent nuclear fuel storage casks for the Ignalina NPP.  This has reportedly been confirmed by INPP CEO Žilvinas Jurkšus, and the plan has been reportedly accorded with the INPP decommissioning contractor, Nukem.

According to Jurkšus, the parties involved have agreed that Germany’s GNS, the manufacturer of casks, would provide full documentation showing that the casks were fit for use in the INPP by November.

However, this was reported by the Lithuanian media, with no official report on it from the government.

According to the media reports, the INPP agreed to wait until November for the documents, certifying that the Constor RBMK1500 type casks did not go against the project’s technical requirements and were fully compliant with the safety requirements.

The Baltic Times

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