The Baltic Environmental Comeback

It's hard to love a hulking Soviet-built nuclear reactor—especially if it's the same model and vintage as the one that blew up in Chernobyl more than two decades ago. Yet in a strange way the Baltic states owe a lot to the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Visaginas, Lithuania. For one, the presence of the plant, plunked in the middle of the countryside by the stroke of a Moscow bureaucrat's pen, helped ignite Lithuania's fledgling eco movement in the 1980s by inspiring activists to oppose its planned expansion. Environmentalism blossomed into a resistance movement to Soviet occupation. "The environment was one of the first things to surface during Gorbachev's glasnost because it was a neutral issue, and it was new," recalls Inesis Kiskis, under secretary at the Lithuanian Ministry of Environment. "In Lithuania, environmental consciousness preceded independence."

Paradoxical as it may seem, the Chernobyl-era giant is now a key element in the Baltic states' campaign to reach the world-beating levels of ecological health. The Baltics' green movement may have been born in anti-nuclear activism, but now many realize that nuclear power can also be a valuable source of clean energy. Indeed, Lithuania's high scores in Yale and Columbia's Environmental Performance Index—it ranks 16th overall, and second, to Latvia, in its income group, and does well on air pollution, carbon and sulfur emissions, ozone and so forth—are largely thanks to its reliance on nukes, rather than Russian gas or Polish coal, for its energy.

Other post-Soviet states that rely heavily on nukes fare poorly on other measures of environmental performance—Ukraine, for instance, scores low in agriculture, biodiversity and ecosystem vitality. By contrast, Lithuania and the other Baltic nations have moved to a more Scandinavian economic and social model, with all that that implies for the environment. Lithuania scores higher than average in measures of agriculture, fisheries, irrigation, pesticide regulation and water purity. "We're trying to reach not only the Scandinavian standard of living, but also its environmental standards, too," says Daiva Semeniene, director of the Center for Environmental Policy in Vilnius.

Luckily for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, their Scandinavian neighbors have been more than just role models. Since the early days of the Baltic states' independence, Nordic countries have poured huge amounts of money into all three Baltic countries to get a massive environmental cleanup underway. Call it a giant green mentoring scheme: the Swedish government allocated about €200 million to fund Swedish-led eco-projects in the Baltic states and northwestern Russia; Finland focused on Estonia, while Denmark spent €48 million on Lithuania between 1991 and 2002. Water purification was an early priority because of concerns over pollution in the Baltic Sea. The European Union did its bit, too, providing funding to help the Baltics comply with strict European emissions codes prior to their joining the Union in 2004.

It worked. The prospect of EU membership proved to be a powerful incentive. "I don't think people would be doing a lot for the environment without the legal pressure," says Arturas Abromavicius, who has headed Swedish technology consultancy Sweco's Lithuania operations since 1993 and has seen the transformation firsthand. During the 1990s, Lithuania's emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulates dropped more than 2.5 times as the country restructured and developed a service economy and new environmental regulations took hold. And Lithuania is due to receive €1 billion between 2007 and 2013 from the European Union to fund environmental cleanup projects to meet new regulations.

That success, and the challenges in meeting future EU targets, make the Lithuanian government nervous about EU demands to close down Ignalina by 2009, due to its advanced age. The plant produces 70 percent of the country's electricity as well as some of Latvia's. Latvian Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis has warned that closure would cause power shortfalls unless the Baltics find alternative energy sources. Europe has poured billions of euros into safety upgrades at the plant in recent years, and the U.K. is funding a consortium of contractors who are dismantling and decontaminating the older of Ignalina's two reactors. The remaining reactor, now 21 years old, is due to be shut down in 2009, but Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas has been fighting for a stay. "The EU should be reasonable," says Abromavicius. "Energy prices would rise and that would be very painful for the country."

The long-term answer, says Kirkilas, is to forge an integrated, regionwide energy scheme that is clean and efficient (and doesn't rely on Russian gas). Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland are talking about building a bigger, 3,200-megawatt reactor, at a cost of €5 billion to €6 billion, to supply a Baltic-wide power grid.

The hard part is getting through the next few years, as Lithuania's middle class puts pressure on the power grid. That shouldn't be insurmountable for a country that's gone from Soviet-era catastrophe to a Scandinavian culture of ecology in a generation.