Poll suggests Lithuanians will reject nuclear plant in referendum

By bne IntelliNews August 7, 2012

Tim Gosling in Prague -

Just under half of Lithuanians are set to vote against the construction of a new nuclear power plant, while less than 20% will offer support in a non-binding referendum in October, according to a recent survey. While a resounding rejection could make life very tricky for the troubled project, there's a lot of political horse trading ahead whatever the outcome.

A total of 48% of Lithuanians are likely to vote against building a new regional nuclear facility at Visaginas to replace the old one that was decommissioned in 2009, while 19% support the construction, reports Bloomberg, referencing a survey by Prime Consulting. The poll, conducted in the country's largest cities among 500 people on July 16-17, provided no margin of error.

Lithuania will hold the referendum on October 14 alongside a general election, in which the ruling centre-right coalition is widely expected to be ousted from office. The polls suggest that the Social Democrats - who originally called for the vote on Visaginas complaining that details on the project remain too scarce after earlier supporting the plan to build the plant - are most likely to lead the next government.

However, with no single party managing more than 17% in the latest polls, the current coalition leader Homeland Union has said it remains open to potential participation in the next government, which is likely to include three or four coalition members. The final composition of the government, and the distribution of posts, will also depend critically on President Dalia Grybauskaite, who has been a strong supporter of Lithuania's accelerated drive for greater energy security in recent years.

Still bickering

At the same time, speculation persists that the Social Democrats' questioning of Visaginas is no more than political jockeying ahead of the elections. However, the likelihood that the referendum could show a significant majority of Lithuanians now oppose the nuclear plan would add grist to the mill of lobbyists for increased use of gas - 100% of which comes from Russia for the meantime - and other "capital groups," as the businesses that are involved in the energy trade are referred to in political debates and the media.

In turn, increased uncertainty within Lithuania will create more problems for the Visaginas project, which has still yet to get off the ground despite years of talking. Like any large energy project in the Baltics, the nuclear plant is necessarily a regional scheme, and those regularly provoke bickering between the three Baltic states, with much encouragement from Russia. Latvia in particular, with its strong Russian minority, has regularly suggested it is adverse to the willingness in Vilnius to ruffle Muscovite feathers.

Echoing the Lithuanian opposition, Riga continues to insist that it needs more details before committing to the project. Currently, Lithuania is set to own 38% of Visaginas, with Estonia to hold 22% and Latvia to split the remaining 40% with strategic investor Hitachi. However, those shares are anything but nailed down, while Poland is reportedly mulling a return to the project after leaving in 2011.

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