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Aging nuke plants add to Europe's economic woes

Associated Press Modified: November 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm •  Published: November 17, 2012
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In the long term Lithuania hopes to send its fuel back to Russia, where it was manufactured. But for now it has nowhere to put many spent fuel bundles since the temporary storage facility that was supposed to be ready when the plant closed in 2009 is still not complete.

Decommissioning work in Lithuania, Slovakia and Bulgaria has been held up by vague contracts, lengthy regulatory approval, commercial disputes and management changes, according to officials involved in the projects.

Since closing the plants was a condition for their joining the bloc, the EU is paying almost the entire bill, and for taxpayers, it's huge —more than €2 billion ($2.6 billion) so far, over half of it to Ignalina, the most troublesome. The three countries have re-estimated total costs at €5.3 billion ($6.8 billion) — up from the original estimate of €4 billion ($5.1 billion) — and doesn't include the toughest job, dismantling the reactor cores.

The job was due to be completed between 2025 and 2035, but may take much longer and cost more.  That's a disturbing omen for the EU's plans to shut down one-third of its member states' 143 active reactors by 2025. The bloc currently has 77 reactors offline in various stages of decommissioning.

Other EU countries will have to foot the bill for closing their own plants, adding to taxpayers' woes. In Germany, it will be in addition to energy price increases as the government scrambles to finance an ambitious switch from nuclear to renewables, which should account for 60 percent of total energy consumption by 2030. Just last month Germany's main utilities announced that households could see their electricity bill jump up to 50 percent in order to finance this transition from nuclear power.

Experts say that disassembling atomic plants promises to be far costlier than previously estimated, given the lack of experience worldwide and nuclear operators' propensity to underestimate decommissioning costs to make new projects look more attractive.

Thomas of Greenwich University said in Britain nuclear operators were supposed to pay for the decommissioning, but over the decades the cost was passed to the government, which will have to come up with €120 billion ($153 billion) over the next century to dismantle the country's existing nuclear power plants.

Just abandoning the facilities with radioactivity trapped inside is not an option. But given the enormous expenditures, some governments are opting to drag out the decommissioning over many decades.

In its heyday, the Ignalina plant near the border with Russia employed 5,000 people and provided power to Estonia, Latvia, Belarus and Russia. Although 2,000 people still work there, the atmosphere inside is almost funereal.

CEO Zilvinas Jurksus, a soft-spoken telecommunications expert who took over Ignalina in May 2011, believes the German company that leads the decommissioning, Nukem Technologies, underestimated the projects' scope and has been too slow preparing detailed documents.

Nukem, in turns, faults Lithuanian red tape and lack of experience.

"Nukem built a used fuel storage facility in Bulgaria. The project started at the same time as in Lithuania, and we handed the facility over to the customer last year, in the spring," said Beate Scheffler, a Nukem spokeswoman. "In Lithuania, we are still working."

It is becoming increasingly clear that the nuclear-free dreams of countries like Germany promise to be far more complicated to fulfill than originally anticipated.

"It's one of those things that the industry has always said — 'look, we know how to do it, it's technically simple,'" said Thomas. "Well, put your money where your mouth is and actually do it."

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Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed to this report.