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Lithuanians Vote Against Building Nuclear Power Plant

Submitted by on November 8, 2012 – 9:45 pm 17 Comments |  

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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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

    So, do they get their power from Russia or Poland? I can’t see either one being particularly attractive for a Lithuanian.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Mostly Russia. And yes, neither would be terribly attractive as an option. I find it fascinating that the people who would potentially have the most environmental impact are the ones who voted for the plant — I guess the jobs are more important than the environment!

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

        Well, considering that it is a nuclear plant, I imagine that the biggest environmental impact would be from the storage of nuclear waste, which might not be on site.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Very true. Ironically, such waste might actually be sent to Russia… But I think the real danger is that it could blow, like the Chernobyl plant did… Still, what other objections beside environmental ones could people elsewhere in Lithuania have?

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

            I believe protesters in Germany and the United States have feared that nuclear plants would be some sort of security threat, that they could be turned into bombs by terrorists or something. While that’s nonsense, it does indicate the kind of fears voters might have.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Yes, but wouldn’t such worries be worse closer to the plant? That’s what I don’t quite understand…

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

            Having grown up in the Northwest, it always struck me that people in Los Angeles and New York thought they knew so much more about how we ought to be living and what we should be doing with our state. I suspect that may be how the people of Zarasai view the voters of Vilnius.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Interesting idea, though I am not sure it is the case: Lithuania is much smaller so it’s harder to see the residents of the capital as being so removed from an area like Zarasai. I wonder how much connection with Latvia/Latvians there are in Zarasai/Ignalina…

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

            I guess that might be true, since Vilnius is so close to Zarasai. It looks like they might even speak a similar, Aukstaitian dialect of Lithuanian.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Yes, I don’t think there’s any major dialectal distinctions there.

          • David Schwartz

            Well in a Post-Fukushima world the other concern could be a accidental radiation release in a country small enough that much of it could be irradiated in such a situation. Especially when it is still very heavily agrarian.

            This concern would be combined/countered with the worry of having their power come from somewhat untrusted neighbors and a desire to try to regain that independence. It would be interesting to see what would happen to the issue if the power supply came under a disruption like we saw with Russian supplied natural gas to Europe a few years ago.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Thank you for sharing those thoughts, David! I agree that it is interesting to see how the situation plays out. And you are right that the danger of accidental release of radiation is always there: this is exactly why the old plant at Ignalina was closed in the first place. In fact, Fukushima disaster is just a reminder, but this area is close enough to Chernobyl to still be scarred by that experience (although they didn’t suffer from that accident as some other areas). What I do find fascinating is that whatever dangers people are scared of—accidents, terrorists, etc.—it is people further away from the plant that are scared more than those who live in its immediate vicinity. But why? Are they more concerned with the potential loss of jobs of a new plant isn’t built? Are they more used to the idea of being next to a nuclear power plant so they are less scared? I don’t know. I am still looking for answers…

          • David Schwartz

            “Are they more concerned with the potential loss of jobs of a new plant isn’t built? Are they more used to the idea of being next to a nuclear power plant so they are less scared?”

            Yes to both to varying degrees. You see similar responses in the W Virginia mountaintop removal coal mining. While it not the same exact sort of situation it serves as an example since we have a population that supports a problematic and destructive extraction process for the economic reasons while accepting (to a degree) the environmental and health costs. For your second question it falls under the familiarity breeds complacency idea, in that Californians are used to the idea of earthquakes and folks from the East coast are not. The idea that the earth can violently move with no warning can be completely terrifying to those who are not used to it.

            A good person to talk to about this would be Dr Rodrigue at CSU Long Beach, she’s a geographer that specializes in risk analysis and human interactions with hazard. She also happens to be my committee senior co-chair for my thesis.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Oh I surely understand how both possibilities can work… What I wonder is which ones truly apply to the Lithuanian vote. I wonder if there’s any opinion polling that would shed light on the matter…

          • David Schwartz

            Agreed.

          • David Schwartz

            Though my Lithuanian is practically non-existant, even though I have family from there, so the polling may not be understandable to me at least. Furthermore, we would hope that the poll was constructed correctly to offer a degree of estimation of the where people fall in their support or opposition.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Excellent points!

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