The Limits of Europe: Nuclear City

The Limits of Europe is a new series of special reports from the outer reaches of Europe. In these wastelands and the structures they contain: from space stations in the Arctic regions to modern ruins on the Mediterranean rim, we can see the ideological conflicts that will determine Europe’s future being fought out. First we look at a town on Lithuania’s border with Belarus built to service Chernobyl’s twin, a nuclear power station that was once the largest in the world. As one might expect for a new town, the town clock in Visiginas is digital. This highly informative clock gives the citizens of this small town in eastern Lithuania,  25 seconds of time, 25 seconds of date and then it also tells you how much radiation there is in the atmosphere.  At the civic heart of this Soviet built new town at the very edge of the European Union, close to the border with Belorus, is a geiger counter. Between the town administration block and the shopping centre a digital display announces how many microRoentgen per hour there are in the atmosphere. One minute it is 8, the next it is 11. Very safe.

This is just the first and most obvious visual link between the small town and Ignalina, the nuclear power station that it was built to service. It stands just 8km from this town of high-rise blocks inside a ring road. When the second reactor unit was completed in 1987, the station was the most powerful in the world. A grid stretched out from it across the flat lands of the Soviet Union’s Baltic dominions; one building providing electricity to 8 million people in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belorussia and Kaliningrad, an eastern enclave of Russia.

One of the conditions of Lithuania joining the EU in 2004 was a promise to decommission the Soviet built station and indeed the first of the massive RBMK 1500 water-cooled reactors was shut down in 2005. The process of decommissioning it though has become complex, expensive and potentially disastrous for the economic stability of teh whole regions.  In 2008, sensing a change of heart in Europe over nuclear power prompted by fear of global warming – the Lithuanian government petitioned the European Union to allow them to keep Ignalina. A hastily organised referendum showed a majority were in favour of retaining the plant, even if the 50% turnout wasn’t reached to make it binding. In December 2009 the plant stopped producing electricity.

Brigita Dauniene, Director of the Information Centre at the plant, holds out little hope. She pauses before she uses the phrase ‘so-called Chernobyl style reactor’ but she can’t help use the phrase. Every nuclear power facility is dogged by the disaster but Ignalina more than others. The twin reactors were built to produce the same 1500 MWe of power in the same way. Despite this fact, the second reactor unit came on line after Chernobyl, an event which, so the town’s people say registered little on their geiger counter. When they say they don’t have faith in their unique civic measuring device, they have good reason as to why.

Despite, the huge work that has gone into cleaning up Ignalina and a 2004 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which stated that Ignalina was as clean and as safe as any Western nuclear power station, its closure is more than likely. In Visaginas they are remarkably sanguine about the prospect of Ignalina. ‘We don’t expect much but we will see what will be the outcome,’ says Dauniene.

Visiginas exists solely because of Ignalina. It was built to service the station. An umbilical chord links the station to the town; 10km of shiny new aluminium pipes, which provides hot water free of charge to the city. As one drives from the plant into the town, the pipe vaults the road in places disappears into the woods. Somewhere through these woods lies Belarus – still in the grips of anachronistic Soviet totalitarianism. Condoleeza Rice called it “the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe”.

Belarus shows what strange relationships are expressed by pipelines in this part of the world. The former Soviet state was brought back into a loose federation with Russia by its president Lukashenko in the 1990s. This hasn’t stopped huge disputes taking place between the two countries. In January 2007 the Russian state-owned pipeline company Transneft stopped pumping oil into the Druzhba pipeline which runs through Belarus.  According to the Russian company, Belarus was siphoning the oil off illegally. This caused consternation in Germany and Poland which relied on oil coming through the Druzhba pipeline. According to Belorussian authorities, Russia had ceased paying a transit tax for moving oil through Belarus. This had in turn been imposed after Russia doubled the price it charges Belarus for gas supplies. It was a fascinating stalemate: who actually owns a pipeline, the country who pumps stuff through it, the country who buys the stuff at the other end or the country it runs through?

This story is of course foremost in Lithuanian minds as they consider closer reliance on Russia for energy. Instead of sitting at the heart of their own energy network they are a staging post on the Russians. It’s a power dynamic that is sadly familiar to them from their days as a vassal state of Russia.

Nothing comes from the east except trouble. In Visiginas there is no need to head in that direction. Indeed it is financially beyond many as the visas are so expensive with Lukashenko retaining a Soviet style control of his borders. As such the town does not benefit from any trade with its neighbouring nation. Indeed, there is no ostensible reason for a town to be here other than the plant. What is remarkable is the fact the local inhabitants are upbeat. I meet Elena Cekiene, the town’s Director of Education ‘even with the second reactor closed we only have about 6% unemployment here,’ she says. Cekiene is organiser of their Country and Western music festival. A friend of mine who has attended the country festival in the town says it is an incredible sight. A slice of Americana in the heart of darkest Europe. The first proto-festival was held in August 24 1991 and was nearly cancelled due to the putsch a few days earlier in Moscow. As the founding organiser Virgis Stakėnas puts it, “Fortunately madmen defeated. Fortunately no one lost the will. And the festival was held.”

The festival helped Visiginas change. Indeed the festival was called Visiginas before the town was. In 1991 it was still name Snieckus after the leader of the People’s Soviet in Lithuania during the Soviet Occupation. Indeed, The town has a far higher than average percentage of Russians living in it. As Cekiene puts it many of the inhabitants over the age of 40 cannot speak Lithuania which is the only official language of government. For these fact and a memory that it was off-limits to normal citizens during the Soviet period, means that Visaginas was a pariah town, built at the same time by the same people as the power station. Despite this link Cekiene believes that the town can outlive its demise. ‘A businessman from Vilnius has opened a cement factory here and is renovating one of the tower blocks. He’s selling them for the same price as you would buy in Vilnius,’ she says.

For an outsider it is hard to imagine Visaginas existing without the nuclear power station. The imagery of nuclear power gives the place the only character it has. In front of the dreariest 10 storey blocks, climbing frames re-enact the drama of the neutron leaving the atom. The seating on the whirlyig mimics the diagram of electrons circling the nucleus.  The kindergartens and the schools of Visaginas no longer come out of the budget of the power station as was the case in Soviet times, but the link is strong. Visiginas shows how closely embedded nuclear power is into the living fabric of this country and by extension every advanced nation which uses nuclear power. We may ignore the natural disaster of a tsunami, to concentrate on a vastly exaggerated threat of a man-made one but what happens when our own fears lead us to slowly destroy a place.

Without the manic energy of the nuclear vocabulary and you have little else in Visiginas. The wider national economy is going to be less without it to and indeed Europe’s power supply as a whole is going to be lesser without nuclear power. Germany made a startling retreat from nuclear power following the limited contamination caused by Fukushima. Visiginas is a microcosm of that retreat. For the next 25 years, the town will earn some employment – at least 1000 – from the power station as decommission continues, to a point according to Dauniene, where the power station is returned to a ‘flat piece of grass.’ Regardless of whether you think nuclear energy is a long-term proposition or not, the alternative facing Lithuania is stark. They have a Soviet built reconditioned gas-powered station between Vilnius and Kaunas ready to fire up when Ignalina goes dead. The nuclear energy produced by a Soviet built power station and closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency would surely be cleaner than a gas-fired power station.

Yet the very fabric of the town to which Ignalina is linked provides reasons why we in the West would like to to do away with it. Visaginas is a monument to the double trauma caused by nuclear and Soviet power. We know that the power station was designed by NIKIET (Scientific Research and Nuclear Facility Designing Institute) a Russian organisation that still exists. We probably won’t ever know who designed the town, because archives for it were either retained by the Russians or destroyed when they departed.

According to Cekiene, the same military engineers that built the power station built the town. Where the forest start at the very edge of the town lie piles of plattenbau covered in moss. Building blocks for an expansion that never came, they now look like strange tombs. A graveyard. At the power station, the machine that retracts and adds power rods to the reactor core has the same stork painted on it that flies over the town centre. These climbing frames, express delight at the creativity of mankind but also in their manic aspects a great fear. The playgrounds represent the same atomic age dilemna as characters in Marvel comics: Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, and Dr. Octagon, although they do so inadvertenly. In these characters there is a manic energy and a warning against hubris. Science can be your downfall as well as your liberator, they say.

Yet in their dilapidated state one can see what damage there is in fearing mankind’s power too. As the climbing frames rust the whole process of decommissioning begins to unravel as well. This year, the Lithuanian energy minister Arvydas Sekmokas announced that although 60% of the money allocated to the disassembly of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant has been spent, without anything to show for it.

According to the Centre for Eastern Studies ‘Some of the storage facilities being built by [Russian-owned firm] Nukem Technologies were to be used for the needs of the new nuclear power plant which Lithuania is planning to build next to the old one. Although energy production at Ignalina has ended, the fuel must remain in the reactor because Nukem has failed to build the storage facilities which were expected to be completed 3 or 4 years ago. Nevertheless, it has been paid remuneration for the work (without imposing default penalties) as has the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development for handling the fund.”

This farce is beginning to have a serious affect. Nukem Technologies is going to asking for extra money to complete the job. Lithuania’s deputy minister of energy resigned on 6 September 2011 and the project is facing a financing gap of €1.5 billion for the second phase after 2014. Electricity has begun to rise in price. The government itself predicted a 30% increase during 2010. Reuteur’s reported in 2010 that analysts believed Lithuania’s GDP growth would contract by 1–1.5%, and increase inflation by 1%. Furthermore Lithuania will have to rely on imports from Russia, which as neighbouring Belorus has found is a sure means to be back in the old colonial powers thrall. The perceived threat of nuclear disaster is more damaging than any real disaster.

Whilst Visiginas is a fascinating product of a historic moment but together with the power station to which it is umbilically attached, it is more than a historic artefact. It is a problem that relates to the most pressing issue of our time: how we define clean power and how we provide it.  Ignalina provides electricity to 8 million homes. Will knocking it down and pretending it never existed really solve our energy problems?


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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One Response to The Limits of Europe: Nuclear City

  1. This is a fascinating piece and a very interesting background to our current project on the town of Visaginas.

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