At The Edge of Europe
In the centre of Visaginas in Lithuania, beneath a statue of a stork, is the town clock. Fittingly, for a new town, it is a digital clock. It gives you 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, is a geiger counter. Between the town administration block and the shopping centre, a digital display announces how many microroentgen per hour of radioactivity there is in the atmosphere. One minute it is eight, 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 built 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 eight million people in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Kaliningrad, the eastern enclave of Russia.
Brigita Dauniene, director of the Information Centre, holds out little hope. She pauses before she says ‘so-called Chernobyl-style reactor’ but she can’t help using the phrase. Every nuclear power facility is dogged by the Chernobyl disaster but Ignalina more than others. The twin reactors were built to produce the same 1500 MW (electric) 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.
Despite the huge work that has gone into cleaning up Ignalina and a 2004 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 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. ‘We don’t expect much but we will see what will be the outcome,’ says Dauniene. Several kilometres away, through dense woodland, lies Belarus – still in the grips of an anachronistic totalitarianism. There is little traffic between the two countries because the visas are so expensive. Indeed, there is no ostensible reason for a town to be here other than the plant.
Still, the local inhabitants are upbeat. Elena Cekiene, the town’s director of education and organiser of their Country and Western music festival, says ‘even with the second reactor closed we only have about six per cent unemployment here.’ Elena came to the town when it only had a population of 1,000 and was called Snieckus after the leader of Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania. For this reason and the fact that it was off-limits to normal citizens during the Soviet period, Visaginas was a pariah town, built originally to provide homes for power station workers. Despite this link, Cekiene believes that the town can outlive the power station’s 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 pay 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 whirligig mimics the diagram of electrons circling the nucleus.
An umbilical chord links the station to the town; 10km of shiny new aluminium pipes, which provide hot water free of charge. 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. Indeed, take away the manic energy of the nuclear vocabulary and you have little else. For the next 25 years, the town will earn some employment – at least 1,000 jobs – through the power station as decommissioning continues, to a point according to Dauniene, where it is restored 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. It has 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 that from 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 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 Design Institute of Energy Technologies), 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 Soviet forces or destroyed when they departed. According to Cekiene, the same military construction workers who built the power station built the town. At the power station, the machine that retracts and adds power rods to the reactor core has the stork painted on it that also flies over the town centre. Those atom-inspired climbing frames express delight at the creativity of mankind but also, in their manic aspects, a great fear.
In Visaginas one can see that power tends to corrupt in the political sense; Soviet communism became an imperial occupying force. Yet one can read a concern about power in the technological sense. The physical process of nuclear power is to begin a chain reaction and then control the consequences. The playgrounds represent the same atomic-age dilemma as characters in Marvel comics: Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, and Dr Octopus, although they do so inadvertently. In their manic energy there is a warning against hubris. Science can be your downfall as well as your liberator.
Certainly the town 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. The Soviet-built station provides electricity to eight million homes in a manner which accords with IAEA standards. Knocking it down suggests we are still keen to show the Soviets who won. This is not an attitude that will solve our energy problems.