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A crucial step towards Lithuania‘s energy independence? 22 August 2012

Response from the Japanese Embassy regarding the article: A crucial step towards Lithuania‘s energy independence?

Mr. Ray Vyšniauskas
Gedimino 1, Vilnius, Lithuania
August 16, 2012

Dear Mr. Vyšniauskas,

As I have read your article “Crucial steps towards energy independence?” in the July/August 2012 edition of LiTnews, I am writing to draw your attention to the following factual inaccuracies:

  1. “the Japanese are building the same type of power plant in our area of the world.”

The type of power plant to be built in Visaginas is not the same type as Fukushima nuclear power plant. The reactor type proposed for the Visaginas project is the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR), which is the only Generation III+ reactor with a proven operational record. It is different from the reactor at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which was designed 30-40 years ago. ABWR licensed in Japan and the United States, excels in terms of safety, operational efficiency and cost performance, which were achieved through the years of research and development conducted by Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, power utilities and manufacturing companies of Japan. Also, in February this year Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told visiting Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius that Japan would share the experience and lessons learned from the accident at Fukushima and contribute to enhancing nuclear safety in Lithuania

2. “they (the Japanese) are closing all of their own (nuclear power plants).”

We are not closing all of the nuclear power plants. The operation of power plants had been stopped for regular safety inspections, however if proven to be safe through the inspections, the Japanese Government can give permission for power plants to restart the operation, taking the opinions of the local governments and residents into consideration. Through the formal procedures, in June and July, the Japanese power utility Kansai Electric Power Co., Inc. received permission for resuming operation of two reactors at the Ohi nuclear power plant and the two reactors are now in operation.

I hope this letter could help you understand better and correctly on the matter.

Sincerely yours,
Kazuko Shiraishi
Ambassador of Japan to Lithuania

The article in question was originally published on the LiTnews website on 10 May, but was updated for publicaton 26 July. The updated article is reproduced below:

A crucial step towards Lithuania‘s energy independence?

Text: Ray Vysniauskas

The Lithuanian government has been busily trying to sign off on the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant before elections in October.

With polls giving the Kubilius government little chance of holding onto power after October, there has been a great sense of urgency in pushing Visaginas as far as possible, and in making the road to building a new nuclear power plant irreversible.

Photo: BFL/Tomas Lukšys

Both the government and President Grybauskaitė have been pushing the importance of energy independence, wanting to move both the nuclear power station and the proposed LNG terminal forward despite the benign political climate.

While Lithuanians are quoted as being some 70% pro-nuclear, there is growing resistance to a nuclear plant emerging, and the government has had to face increased scepticism from many quarters of both the parliament and the public.

The calls for a nuclear referendum were finally answered when Parliament reluctantly agreed to put the question to the general population which will be held during the elections in October. This is a very Lithuanian solution however, as it is a non-binding referendum, meaning that the government is under to obligation to change any legislation as the result of this public poll.

The nuclear question has already claimed political casualties. After proudly announcing a united coalition in the October general elections, the Social Democrats, Labor Party and Order and Justice Party proudly shook hands in front of a cacophony of press and cameras and promised all sorts of great things for the Lithuanian people.

But less than a month later the coalition had already fallen apart after the Labor Party sided with the government in passing legislation crucial to the establishment of the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant. The Social Democrats went on record to say they oppose the legislation in its current form and that they would do all in their power to change it.

Let’s hope that the Labor Party flip-flop is not simply another indication of their opportunist political philosophy, and that this time they might put a modicum of integrity into their political ideology.

The Lithuanian appetite for a nuclear power station is very openly on the wane. The 70% of the population that favour energy independence have been witness to the tragedy at Fukishima and are aware that the Japanese will be building the same type of power plant in our area of the world, just as they are closing all of their own.

And Lithuania was hoping to begin operations of their own plant in 2020 – 2022 just as Germany is due to close all of their nuclear generation plants in response to the Japanese disaster.

Then there was another announcement that the signing of the concession agreement between Hitachi and the Lithuanian government was put back from June to the end of the year.

Arvydas Sekmokas, Lithuanian Energy Minister, said this was done in order to give interested parties greater time to negotiate interest in the project. By this I take it that Poland has again indicated some interest in taking part, or some other partners are unhappy with the current sharing of costs.

At present it is envisioned that Lithuania will take the bulk of the financial burden with a 38% interest, while Estonia will sign up for 22%, Latvia 20% and Hitachi is to have a 20% financial interest in the power plant.

And as we try to move away from dependence on Russian energy, we sign an agreement giving 20% of the plant to Japan, just as we have sold the largest national business – Mažeikių Nafta - and greatest earning entity in Lithuania to Polish interests. All the while still claiming that the most important of all national interests is energy independence.

I remember writing about an electricity bridge linking Lithuania with Western Europe over six years ago, and the weak link in that chain has always been Poland. We were in the position of selling excess electricity into Western Europe while Ignalina was still operating, but that did not eventuate primarily because of the lack of Polish support for the project, and so we remain outside the greater European energy grid.

It has recently been announced that Poland is also looking to build a nuclear power plant, and to build more traditional generators to further exploit its substantial coal resources, so their commitment to linking Lithuania with Western Europe is at best questionable.

And don’t forget that with Kaliningrad and Belarus also planning nuclear power stations the supply in the area might push prices well below budgeted levels with possibly four nuclear power stations within a 400 kilometre radius.

The cost of electricity generated at the new nuclear plant is also not totally clear. The initial cost per KWh has been widely questioned by many and regarded as far too optimistic, and changing inflationary, economic and demand levels in the decade before the plant is completed create further uncertainty, even though the Ministry of Finance has signed off on the project.

With the LNG terminal we are effectively hedging our bets against a Russian monopoly of supply. This is a much more tenable solution as it gives us the option of buying gas on the world market, whereas now we are effectively locked into the Russian infrastructure and have no viable means of sourcing alternative

That of course is one strategy, while another might be to work harder on reducing the need for a fence between us, instead of building one ever larger.

I apologise for the innaccuracies, though I will point out the the ABWR reactors planned for Lithuania are an evolution of the BWR reactors which were used at Fukushima, so they are of similar basic design, though of course many safety features have been enhanced over the years as well as overall efficiency.

My second point was that there is a public backlash against nuclear power and the Japanese government is facing increasing resistance in reopening its powerplants after being one of the most nuclear dependent countries in the world. Two reactors have again re-opened, but before the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 Japan had more than 50 nuclear powerplants in operation.

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