Lithuanians Vote Against Building Nuclear Power Plant
While several posts in the main portion of GeoCurrents website deal with the results of the recent U.S. elections, a number of forthcoming news posts will cover recent elections elsewhere in the world. In mid-October, the citizens of Lithuania voted in the national legislative elections, as well as in a special advisory referendum on nuclear power. Energy independence—one of the key topics of the U.S. presidential race—is even more hotly debated in Lithuania. In 2009, the Baltic state closed its only nuclear power plant, located near the town of Ignalina on the border with Latvia (marked by red dot on the map on the left), 150 kilometers (93 miles) northeast of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius (marked by black dot). The shutdown was one of the terms of Lithuania’s 2004 admission to the European Union, as the European Commission considered the plant—similar in design to the infamous Chernobyl plant—too dangerous. Prior to the shutdown, plans were being developed to keep the old plant working until a new one was ready; in 2008 Lithuanians were asked to decide the issue in a national referendum. At the time, 89% voted in favor of keeping the plant, but the low turnout of only 48% rendered the result invalid (the threshold was set at 50%). The closing of the old plant, which provided most of Lithuania’s power, has left the nation of about three million reliant on energy from Russia, a country that most Lithuanians are apprehensive about. Initially, support for cutting the energy artery from Russia was strong, but it has waned considerably after the Fukushima nuclear disaster hit Japan in 2011.
In July 2012, the Seimas (Lithuania’s parliament) called for another advisory referendum on nuclear power. The proposal to hold the referendum was put forward by the then-opposition party, the Social Democrats, who argued that since the plant “will be built on Lithuanian land, with increased danger, therefore we must ask the opinion of the Lithuanian people”, in the word’s of Social Democrat Birute Vesaite. The then-ruling Homeland Union (Lithuanian Christian Democrats) opposed the referendum, accusing Social Democrats of seeking to make political capital out of the issue prior to the elections. As Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis said during the debate: “For some, getting into parliament for four years is more important than ensuring Lithuanian energy independence, and economic and political independence for half a century”. Nonetheless, the decision to run a referendum was made by a vote of 62 in favor, while 39 voted against the proposal and 18 abstained. Former President Valdas Adamkus described the decision to hold the referendum as “nonsense”, asking “What if the nation decides against, and the government decides to build it?”—which is exactly what currently appears to be the case.
There seems to be some truth in these accusations from Christian Democrats, as the Social Democrats defeated the Homeland Union, led by Andrius Kubilius, and became the largest party in the Seimas. As for the nuclear referendum, it appears that anti-nuclear protests in the spring 2012, discussed in an earlier GeoCurrents post, set public opinion against the proposal, with the “no” votes outnumbering the “yes” about 2:1. Interestingly, the strongest support for the nuclear power plant came from Zarasai district municipality, where it will be built: this is the only area where more than 50% voted for the plant, as can be seen from the map reposted on the left from ElectoralGeography.com. The turnout this time was about 52%, just over the threshold to make the referendum valid. Yet it is not clear what the effects of the vote will be. The government is not bound by the advisory referendum, which does not kill off the project but leaves a big question mark over its future. In the meantime, the Seimas backed a deal with Japan’s Hitachi on the new plant, which is expected to generate 1,350 megawatts from 2020-2022. Still, final investment decisions are not expected until 2015, though Lithuania’s finance ministry projects the total cost of building the plant at 6.8 billion euros. It claims that 4 billion euros would come from loans, and the rest would be put up by the contractor and energy firms in the Baltic states. The plan foresees a 20% stake in the project for Hitachi, 38% for Lithuania, with fellow Baltic states Estonia and Latvia getting 22% and 20%, respectively.
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