Threats to Lithuanian energy: blackout for 3 billion and VSD warnings

DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

A political agreement was signed in late June in Brussels regarding the Baltic States electricity network synchronisation with continental Europe. The process should conclude in 2025, but it is turning out that up to then, for some five years, Lithuania will have to live under conditions of daily stress, writes.

Firstly because the Belarussian nuclear power plant is likely to become operating in already 2019. Some experts do not dismiss the possibility that massive power spikes from this plant or contrarily cessation of power generation could cause serious emergencies in the Lithuanian electrical network system, even a full blackout.

Such an emergency could cost the country three billion euro. Lithuania’s energy system will not be shielded from such situations as long as it remains in the Russian energy system. However even after withdrawing, it will not be possible to feel safe.

Lithuanian intelligence warned in 2018 on the threat to Lithuanian energy supplies when Kaliningrad and Belarus begin operating autonomously from the Baltic States. This will happen in 2020.

Former Minister of Energy Arvydas Sekmokas says that the Belarussian power plant poses a major threat to Lithuania’s energy security. It could be exploited for hostile purposes.

“A nuclear power plant is a major object, which can cause either high tension spikes into our networks, which could cause overheating and breakages. Equally there is the risk of supply being cut and if it is the main supply, the entire electricity supply system will suddenly shut down, which could cause a blackout,” A. Sekmokas warns.

The former minister urges to dismantle at least two of the electrical lines linking the Utena and Pastoviai substations so that they would remove the possibility for electricity to flow from the Belarussian nuclear power plant.

VDU Centre of Energy Security Research head Juozas Augutis is of the opposite opinion. In his opinion, it is up to politicians to decide whether to prohibit trade with neighbours, however there are also nuclear security questions, which cannot be ignored. The professor believes that even after synchronisation with continental Europe, it would be wise to place flow transformers on these connections.

“Imagine, an accident akin to that in Fukushima occurs or some other reasons and cooling does not occur in the power plant due to a lack of electricity, the risk of nuclear contamination rises. Nevertheless, for such a case I believe it would be logical to maintain the technical capacity to supply electricity, so that it would be possible to cool the reactor so that we would avoid a catastrophe for ourselves and Vilnius,” J. Augutis states.

Litgrid head Daivis Virbickas says that in 2019 when the first reactor (of Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant) , not only the Lithuanian, but the entire Baltic region’s energy system will have to operate in emergency conditions; if the Astravyets reactor suddenly shut down and the major energy bloc ceases supplying electricity, it will be others who will have to cover the energy deficit. Lithuania and the other Baltic States are still dependent on the Russian energy system and will thus have to contribute.

“In the worst case, we will seek to isolate the Lithuanian system from the accident and if we see that it is dragging us down, instructions for containing various accidents are prepared, how the accident’s proliferation is to be prevented,” D. Virbickas says.

Such chaos could continue up to 2025 when the Baltic States will cut themselves off the Russian energy system and will synchronise with continental Europe. However even whether the transfer between systems will go smoothly is unclear. Moscow could take steps to delay the process.

Former head of state electrical energy transfer system operator Litgrid and now chairman of the Seimas Energy Commission Virgilijus Poderys reveals that Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant could hamper matters following its opening in 2019.

“First of all, it is a challenge to our synchronisation project. When nearby we have a large capacity and it is technically integrated into the common system, the desynchronization is inherently made more difficult,” V. Poderys assures.

The 2018 national security threat evaluation by the State Security Department emphasised that in 2014 Russia began reorganisation in the Kaliningrad Oblast energy system so that it would be capable of operating autonomously of the Baltic region. Belarus is also proceeding with similar works. They are to be completed in 2020, five years prior to the planned synchronisation of Baltic – continental Europe networks.

Former Minister of Energy A. Sekmokas is concerned that Lithuania could be left on ice.

“One push of the button could shut down the system. While Kaliningrad was unprepared for isolated operation, it would also be a threat to it, especially if it is considered as a military base because Kaliningrad Oblast would be shut down. Military detachments cannot allow themselves the luxury of losing electricity supply all of a sudden one day,” A. Sekmokas explains.

The influential Washington Post daily announced last year that Russia has a new cyber weapon, capable of crippling the operations of electrical networks. US experts have dubbed the software Crash Override.

It was tested in Ukraine in December 2016 where a fifth of Kiev’s electrical generators were shut down for a time. According to Washington Post sources, this cyber weapon could cause chaos in any state. The Lithuanian State Security Department states that a number of cyber-attacks have been aimed at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure since 2015. The service notes that this displays Russia’s preparation to disrupt the operations of other states’ energy systems, causing massive harm.

“The attacks are part of daily life and together with our partners we are doing our utmost to safeguard from it. If our colleague operators are mostly guarding from technical issues: hardware failure, natural conditions, then we have that threat, let’s call it the geopolitical one. This was portrayed by the case in Ukraine,” Daivis Virbickas says.

Meanwhile, the National Cyber Security Centre has concluded in its annual report that it had detected and neutralised more than 450 cases of malware, with most of it being in specifically the Lithuanian energy sector.

Seimas Energy Commission chairman V. Poderys does not dismiss that the attacks could be linked to the nearing Baltic States – Russian energy systems’ separation.

According to A. Sekmokas’ data, a total shutdown of the Lithuanian energy system would cost Lithuania dearly.

“The consequences were specified by Litgrid. The results of a blackout could reach three billion euro,” A. Sekmokas warns.

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