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Hitachi GE picked for nuclear plant talks in Lithuania

VILNIUS, July 14, 2011 (AFP) - Unfazed by nuclear-safety fears after Japan's Fukushima disaster, Lithuania breathed new life into its atomic power programme Thursday by inviting Japanese-US conglomerate Hitachi GE to start talks on building a new plant.

Deputy Energy Minister Romas Svedas said Lithuania had invited Hitachi GE to launch discussions on a replacement for the Baltic state's only nuclear power station, closed in 2009 under a European Union deal.

Svedas said Hitachi GE's bid was "the most economically advantageous" and that the goal was to seal a final deal by the end of the year.

Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy brings together the Japanese-based giant and US group General Electric. The other bidder was US-based Westinghouse Electric, which is owned by Japan's Toshiba Corp.

Despite the Fukushima disaster, Lithuania plans to build the new reactor at Visaginas in its northeast, unlike Germany and Italy which said they will phase out nuclear energy.

Lithuanian officials have said repeatedly that the planned plant will be safe.

"The technology is very advanced and cannot be compared to any previous reactors," Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius told reporters Thursday.

The energy ministry said that Hitachi GE proposed to build an Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, highlighting its "proven operational track record around the world, with an enhanced level of safety."

Lithuania closed its only nuclear power plant, a Soviet-era facility at Ignalina near Visaginas, in December 2009 under the terms of its EU entry four years earlier.

The new facility is meant to be online by 2020, generating 1,300 Megawatts.

Svedas declined to give financial details. Previously, however, he estimated the project cost at between four and six billion euros ($5.6-8.4 billion).

The project, which also involves Lithuania's ex-communist EU neighbours Poland, Estonia and Latvia, has been slow to get off the ground.

Last December, the bidding process had to start afresh after South Korea's state energy firm Korea Electric Power Corp, which had been chosen for talks, unexpectedly pulled out.

The project has also been dogged by discord between Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland about their relative stakes and power share.

"Under the law, Lithuania must have at least 34 percent of the shares and everything else is a matter of negotiation," Kubilius said.

Latvian President Andris Berzins, sworn in last week, has suggested his cash-strapped nation may have to think again.

But Svedas noted that all four countries participated in assessing the bids and would now move to detailed discussions among themselves and with Hitachi GE.

"From this moment, negotiations will start about concrete investment in the project and the different shares of the five partners," he said.

The old plant's closure saw Lithuania power prices jump amid a deep economic crisis although the country has rebounded since then.

It also left the nation of three million even more reliant than before on its Soviet-era master Russia for energy.

"The Visaginas project is important for energy independence but it is also an economic project whose development may have a positive impact on growth," Kubilius said.

Lithuania has had to turn to mothballed power stations fed by Russian giant Gazprom, its only gas supplier. The two sides are currently locked in a pricing dispute.

In another Soviet hangover, Lithuania lacks power-supply links with Western Europe. There are plans to hook it up to Sweden's grid and to Poland.

 

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