Lithuania wants nuclear plant open after failed vote

VILNIUS (Reuters) – Lithuania vowed on Monday to push for extending the lifespan of its Ignalina nuclear power plant after a referendum failed to support the government’s case against EU demands to close it by the end of 2009.

Officials said turnout in the Sunday referendum was below the required 50 percent but that 91.5 percent of those who voted were in favor of keeping the Soviet-era plant open.

“Unfortunately, the referendum is not valid and no decision was taken as voters turnout was below the required threshold,” Zenonas Vaigauskas, the head of the Chief Electoral Commission, told a news conference on Monday.

The turnout stood at 47.9 percent with ballots counted in 2,028 out of 2,034 polling stations on Monday, he said.

Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas said the support was still “remarkable,” and vowed to press Lithuania’s case with the EU.

“I think we may succeed. The worsening economic situation should support our cause (to keep the plant open),” he told a news conference on Monday. “It is wrong to stick to formalities…I cannot imagine…that the European Commission would decide to worsen our situation.”

Lithuania agreed under its EU entry treaty to close Ignalina by the end of 2009, which has the same kind of reactors as at Chernobyl in Ukraine, where the world’s worst nuclear disaster happened in 1986.

It said last week it may have to defy the EU and keep the plant open if the EU cannot help it assure energy supplies.

The government, accused by critics of doing little to find alternative energy supplies, has begun to fear shortages.

PARLIAMENT VOTE

The referendum was held on the same day as the country’s parliamentary election on Sunday.

The main center-right opposition won the first round of the election, but it faced tough coalition talks after populist parties did well.

The vote took place amid anger over double digit inflation and fears the once high flying economy would slide in the global financial crisis. A newly assertive Russia has also been a focus of concern for some in the former Soviet republic.

Andrius Kubilius, head of the victorious Homeland Union Party, backs holding talks with the EU on keeping open the Ignalina plant. His party was the one which most raised the issue of Russia as a threat to Lithuania.

Lithuania is still part of the electricity system of the former Soviet Union, which includes Russia. The Baltic state said its dependence on Russia’s electricity and natural gas imports would grow after Ignalina’s shutdown.

Kirkilas said Lithuania wanted the EU to consider whether Lithuania can temporarily extend Ignalina’s operations, at least until power links were built to Sweden and Poland — schemes aimed at ending Lithuania’s reliance on power from other former Soviet states.

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