Lithuania's Visaginas nuclear plant gets environmental OK

LITHUANIA - One of the most important energy projects in the Baltic states has gotten the green light from Lithuania's environmental agency. The Ministry of Environment has conducted an environmental impact assessment and given permission for the $9 billion Visaginas nuclear plant to be built near the site of the ageing and controversial Ignalina nuclear facility.

The new 3,400-megawatt (MW) plant is a joint venture between the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, but the project will be overseen by the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant. This is a wholly owned subsidiary of Lithuanian Electricity Organization (LEO), which comprises Lietuvos Energija, RST and the privately owned NDX Energija, which controls the transmission grid company VST AB.

Power partners from Latvia and Estonia will be offered shares of up to 17% each in the new venture, but LEO will retain 51%.

The plant is seen as vital to the Baltic states ending their "energy island" status and reducing their dependence on Russian-generated power. The troubled 35-year-old Ignalina nuclear plant is the key source of power for Lithuania, which also sold electricity generated there to its Baltic neighbours.

The first of Ignalina's two Russian RBMK reactors was shut down in 2004 and the second unit will be decommissioned by the end of 2009, in accordance with the European Union (EU) conditions for Lithuania becoming part of the EU. The country is facing a severe power shortage when the 1,300-MW facility is shut down, since the new Visaginas facility will now not be completed until 2018, at the earliest.

It was originally planned to be up and running by 2015, but there have been disagreements among the three states over various aspects of the plant, ranging from the ownership split to trivial issues like the name.

"We are quite sure that at the beginning of next year we will be able to start on practical implementation of the project, like selecting the technologies," Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said at a recent meeting of the leaders of the Baltic states.

Reactors will be at the top of the shopping list and Canada's government has been working on behalf of the Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) to ensure that Lithuania buys its CANDU nuclear reactors. Canada's AECL already supplies CANDU 6 reactors to the Romanian Cernavoda nuclear plant and the company is currently hoping to sell it two more.

AECL is proposing its 700-MW enhanced CANDU 6 reactor for Visaginas, which would be constructed in 54 months, and which AECL claimed will "fit best" with the country's existing power grid. Stiff competition is expected from Areva SA and Westinghouse Electric Company LLC.


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