Lithuanians take pride in their Chernobyl

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The Independent Online
"For 10 years, people have been saying that this is another Chernobyl just waiting to happen. Well, it has not happened. And it is not going to happen. I can give you a firm guarantee."

As technical director of the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania, Gennadij Negrivoda is used to being on the defensive. The two reactors at the plant are among the 15 that share the same design as the infamous reactor number four at Chernobyl that exploded 10 years ago yesterday.

Although they have been significantly improved over the past decade, they are frequently singled out by western nuclear power experts as among the most dangerous in the world.

"In my view they are no worse than some of the early western nuclear power stations," insists Mr Negrivoda, squinting over every word. "But anyway, in the time since Chernobyl, they have been transformed into different reactors. They simply could not explode."

Safe or not, the power plant at Ignalina is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

Built when Lithuania belonged to the Soviet Union, the plant was designed to provide cheap power for all three Baltic states, and Belarus.

Lithuanians initially viewed it with hostility, but changed their tune after gaining independence in 1991 and began to view the facility with pride.

By then they were also totally dependent on it. The two reactors in operation at Ignalina now generate more than 80 per cent of Lithuania's power, and closing them would plunge the country into darkness.

To those in the West who clamour for Ignalina to be closed, Mr Negrivoda asks: Where else are we going to get our electricity from? And who is going to pay for it?

Of the 15 RMBK Chernobyl-style reactors still operating in Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania, the two at Ignalina are the biggest and the most modern.

Modernity, however, is not the word that springs to mind on passing through the set of control barriers at the entrance to the plant. Here at "Checkpoint Charlie" - as the controls are termed by the plant's 5,000-strong workforce the plant has an outdated, run-down feel.

That image is reinforced outside by the sight of rusty cranes hovering over the foundations of a third reactor, the building of which was abandoned following public protests shortly after the Chernobyl explosion.

In the immediate wake of the disaster, the Soviet Union modified the RMBK reactors aimed at ensuring nothing like it could ever happen again.

Despite Western assistance, Ignalina continued to be plagued by frequent mishaps, most worryingly the disappearance in 1992 of a fuel rod, now believed to have been stolen.

Such incidents have not helped convince the doubters that, in addition to technical improvements, the plant is now infused with the "culture of safety" in the workplace.

But according to Mr Negrivoda, these are routine occurrences. "All reactors have their weak points - even in the West - and that is how it should be. The point is, though, we are trying to improve all the time."

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