Lithuania’s nuclear history, covid-19 and the search for archival sources

By Achim Klüppelberg

The current covid-19 crisis challenges our usual ways of conducting research. While the spring term might have gone by without too many impairments (although digitisation and the cancellation of conferences and workshops leaves some marks), by now several researchers face the problem of inaccessible archives. Albeit this also stalls my work, I was lucky to slip through a narrow window of opportunity. While spending the summer in Germany, where infection numbers were at that time considerably low, I was able to profit from Lithuania’s State Archives’ reopening. After brief consultations with my supervisors and our administration it became clear: I had green light to finally dig again into Soviet nuclear documents.

On 12 August I arrived in Vilnius. At first, I made myself familiar with the archival opportunities this city offers. Unfortunately, my 10-day-visit did not suffice to exhaust the various archives. I first visited the Modern State Archive. Despite the fact that they eventually did not have the documents I was searching for, they provided me with a contact at the Archive of Technical Documentation at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. This was where I headed next to.

Ignalina is actually a town 50 km south of nuclear power plant and has no obvious connection to it. The plant was earlier called (in Russian) the Drukshaiskaya NPP, after the lake that provided it with ample cooling water: Lake Drūkšiai. However, naming it after Ignalina seemed easier.

After a two-hour train ride I reached the nuclear town of Visaginas. Visaginas was earlier called Sniečkus after a former first secretary of the Lithuanian branch of the Soviet Communist Party. It was built to host about 35,000 people, but the population has now fallen to 18,000. Visaginas provided the base for people employed at Ignalina NPP and is still today mostly Russian-speaking. Obviously, the nuclera power plant shaped the vibe in Visaginas in many respects.

Taking advice from my fellow PhD student at KTH, Daniele Valisena, I explored the two-hour way from Visaginas to the power plant on foot. It was a very scenic experience and let me soon astray from the main road leading to the plant. It was very sunny and warm. Not many people were around in this somehow eerie landscape in the northeastern corner of Lithuania, close to Latvia’s Daugavpils and Belarus’ Braslaŭ.

I found myself walking through a small dacha village called Vishnya. Here, people were gardening and small-scale farming a short distance from the nuclear power plant, which hosted the biggest reactors of the world during the 1980s. It was a strange feeling, in view of a history of incidents and accidents at the plant. From the village I went through a forest towards the plant. Soon I reached a beautiful small cemetery with carefully kept graves. While Lake Drūkšiai was supposed to be very close to me, I did neither see its waters nor noticed its presence in any other way.

After a thorough fight with mosquitoes for the sovereignty over my legs, arms and neck, I soon saw the tops of the power plant’s huge transformer station. Given my experiences with Russian security, I was actually expecting someone to stop me, as I slowly but steadily approached the nuclear power plant. But nothing happened. When Lithuania entered the European Union, it had to agree to decommission the power plant due to the similarity of its reactors with those at Chernobyl. More than three quarters of the money for decommissioning came from the European Union, which, together with Lithuania’s turn towards a freer society, changed priorities from secrecy to openness. Soon I reached unhindered the formal entrance of the power plant.

After a short orientation, I entered the Archive of Technical Documentation and spoke with my contact there. Although I was provided with additional valuable literature and information, I was put off until I would be granted formal access by the leadership of the plant. This could not be acquired while I was in Lithuania, but I might get the chance to come back and follow up on this lead in the future.

On my way back I walked past an installation for the storage of low-level radioactive waste, with a conveyor belt stemming directly from the main building of the plant. This made me wonder what actually was going on inside and how the progress of the decommissioning was getting along. Opinions are split on this issue.

After my trip to Ignalina I spent the rest of my time searching through files in Lithuania’s Central State Archives. A personal highlight was here the discussion of how to make Ignalina NPP safer in the wake of the aftermath of the Chernobyl catastrophe. It was very fortunate that I was able to visit Lithuania. The trip provided me with a first archival overview, some crucial source documents, and very valuable impressions and photographs. Hopefully, we can soon all go back to our data, sources, and interview partners as we used to do. There is so much more to explore.