At the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania, everything is huge. The building, which housed the two RBMK reactors and the engine room, is 660 metres long. The two 1500 MW reactors, commissioned in 1983 and 1987, were the most powerful in the world at the time. A third of the 4 planned reactors was under construction when Lithuania chose to join the European Union. 5,000 men and women were producing electricity in the geographical triangle of Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus. So it’s hardly surprising that the plant’s employees speak with pride of their industrial heritage. But the closure of this Chernobyl-type boiling water plant was a sine qua non condition for Lithuania’s accession to the European Union. The reactors were definitively shut down in 2004 and 2009 respectively, and their dismantling is largely subsidised by the European Union.
A delegation from FECER (European Federation of Executives in the Sectors of Energy and related Research), recently visited the Ignalina plant. The plant manager and the trade union colleagues we met were justifiably proud of the second colossal project on the site: deconstruction after construction. Audrius Kamienas, the site’s general manager, talks of a « success story » that should enable the site to return to its original state by 2038. « For example, we have to deal with the equivalent of 17 metal Eiffel Towers, 15 of which are contaminated« , he explains with the same pride as the technicians and engineers at other sites being dismantled, such as Fessenheim, Chooz A and Philippsburg. Once decontaminated, the various components are largely recycled. The spent fuel is stored on the power station site before being finally disposed of in a few decades’ time.
This is certainly a source of pride, but it is also a source of sadness for the Ignalina workers, who could not build on the success of the 1980s. According to the site manager, in 15 years, the employees have had time to get used to the idea of the end of production. There are still 1,500 of them. But there is a hint of sadness in his voice when he admits that the hope here was to keep the reactors running for a very long time and build new ones. The trade unionists we met put it very clearly: « Some people here were involved in building, operating and now decommissioning. It’s very hard emotionally and intellectually. The economic area has also suffered greatly from the departure of many employees with high purchasing power. Many have gone abroad, some to nuclear power stations in Russia or Finland”.
The representatives of FECER were informed that Ignalina NPP and Independent Trade Union have more than 30 years’ experience in negotiations and collective agreement implementation. “During decommissioning, with constantly changing conditions, social dialogue is more important than ever”, said Nikolajus Lebedevicius from Independent Trade Union. The current negotiation is at a final stage and a new collective agreement will get in force this Summer.
Should politicians decide to build new nuclear units, Mr Kamienas fears no opposition. « In this region we don’t need to convince anyone, » he says in perfect English. The technology of these new plants would certainly be very different from RBMK, and the working language would no longer be Russian. Yes, at Ignalina, Lithuanian engineers and technicians have pragmatically kept Russian as their working language to avoid any mistakes due to the use of two languages and alphabets, even though contacts with Russia are cut off.
While in Brussels there is a lot of talk about the Just Transition and innovation in the energy sector, the members of the FECER are committed to seeing the reality of change on the ground. This sharing of experience between trade unionists from different countries leads to analyses and demands that take better account of citizens and employees than only studying the dossiers.
More information about Ignalina NPP, incl. a virtual site tour: https://www.iae.lt/en