The Blog

Lithuania’s Move to Gain Energy Independence Complicated by Russkies

10:08 AM, Jun 24, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In a little noticed letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, dated May 9, three House members and four senators wrote, “As strong supporters of the Baltic States in Congress, we were troubled to learn that Russia intends to build a nuclear power plant within 50 kilometers of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. This is in addition to the nuclear plant Russia is already building in Kaliningrad, only 23 kilometers from the Lithuanian border. While we support the use of nuclear energy, when done in full compliance with IAEA Safeguards, it appears Russia’s motivation is not to produce electricity but to maintain its stranglehold on energy supplies to Europe.”

Nuclear Power Plant

The members of Congress are referring to the fact that Lithuania depends on Russia for as much as 80 percent of its energy. Russia aims to maintain its stranglehold; Lithuania wants to break away.

Russia has started construction on a power plant in Kaliningrad, on the border of Lithuania, and has also reached an agreement with Belarus to build a power plant 14 miles from the Lithuanian border. Under the deal, Russia would provide nearly $9 billion for the nuclear plant in Belarus.  

In response, Lithuanian lawmaker Vytautas Landsbergis recently said that constructing a nuclear facility in Belarus – in addition to the Kaliningrad plant - “could threaten the safety of Lithuania’s two largest rivers, the Neris and Nemunas, and could even endanger Lithuania’s existence in the event of a Chernobyl-style nuclear accident.” This latest move is a clear indication that Russia aims to prevent Lithuania from becoming energy independent. 

“Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said Tuesday that Lithuania is considering asking the European Union to impose restrictions on electricity trading by third parties that generate electric power without complying with nuclear safety requirements,” Forbes reported. “Kubilius directly referenced Russia’s constructing a nuclear power plant in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad as well as a planned Russian-Belarusian project to construct a plant in Belarus. Lithuania has vociferously spoken out against the latter project since a deal was signed March 16 between Russia and Belarus — a deal that would allow Moscow to provide roughly $9 billion in financing to construct the nuclear plant.”

The Forbes report goes on to note that while Lithuania might be protesting the plant because of the environmental concerns, “there are also less obvious factors contributing to Lithuania’s opposition, particularly given recent political tensions among Lithuania, Belarus and Russia.” And that’s the essence of the problem: Russia has been meddling in Lithuania’s business, seeking to maintain its leverage in the nation.

As the members of Congress wrote in their letter to Clinton:

We are even more troubled that while developing these nuclear projects, Belarus and Russia are not properly cooperating with the Baltic countries. Numerous Lithuanian authorities have apparently contacted the Belarusians and the Russians in accordance with the legal norms. We are told the Lithuanian authorities have requested public discussions on the project in Belarus as well as bilateral consultations with the Republic of Lithuania as required by the Espoo Convention. These requests have gone unanswered. Likewise, we have seen press reports that Russia has used a combination of threats and inducements to get South Korean and Italian companies to distance themselves from the Baltic States’ nuclear reactor project. Such reports, if true, should be loudly condemned by the Administration.

So far, the Obama administration has not condemned Russia’s strong-arming. (Why, after all, do what’s right when it might put some sort of Russian “reset” plan at risk?) But the problems, actually, go deeper.

As part of its European Union entry agreement in 2004, Lithuania agreed to close the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP). Nuclear experts determined that it presented safety risks – similar, in fact, to those at Chernobyl – including insufficient fire protection, lack of a containment structure, and insufficient diversity of emergency shutdown systems. The first unit of INPP was shut down in December of 2004, and the second unit was shut down in December of 2009.

INPP is still decommissioning the plant, but there have been significant delays that Lithuania is attributing to NUKEM, the subsidiary of Atomstroyexport, which is a Russian company. Lithuanians blame NUKEM for a number of mistakes (indeed, mistakes that have been prevalent in other projects conducted by the company across the region).

NUKEM may going bankrupt, and the delays have led to a dispute between NUKEM and INPP, causing the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (ERDB), which is administrating the international fund for the decommissioning project, to step in and demand that INPP put aside their differences and work with NUKEM to finish the projects. It’s strange that Lithuanian authorities and INPP are under pressure to agree with the conditions NUKEM is demanding.

Lithuanian officials, it seems, want out from the current agreement, hoping to bring in experts from the U.S., Canada, or to participate in the decommissioning project. But it isn’t that easy.

Lithuania thinks that NUKEM is putting the completion of the decommissioning project at risk. But EBRD policy requires only member countries to work on decommissioning projects. So it looks like, at least for now, Lithuania must live with the risk of the decommissioning project—knowing full well that it’s at the hands of a company that Lithuania seems to have lost faith in, and that is a Russian entity.

With the nuclear crisis in Japan as a result of the massive tsunami that hit the nation a few months ago, “Lithuania [has] an opportunity to speak out against Belarus and Russia when the European Union, and major European players such as Germany, may be more willing to listen,” according to Stratfor. Such a small country surrounded by big nuclear power plants lends a certain amount of risk to Lithuanians that not all are willing to accept—particularly when the Lithuanians themselves wouldn’t be in control of the power plants, and the safety regulations the power plants would be subjected to.

Things could change. But it would require a helping hand from the U.S. and EU. The Lithuanians want to control their own energy destiny, and so far the government has selected five companies who are interested in helping it create its own power source.

Lithuania achieved political independence from the Russians in 1990. When energy independence will be achieved, though, is now dependent on whether the Obama administration can abandon their silly "reset" plan and whether the EU will have the strength to speak out against the Russians.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers