The Ignalina nuclear power plant contained two RBMK-1500 water-cooled graphite-moderated channel-type power reactors. The Soviet-designed RBMK-1500 reactor was originally the most powerful reactor in the world with an electrical power capacity of 1,500 megawatts, but this distinction was later superseded by other nuclear reactors elsewhere. After the Chernobyl accident the reactor was de-rated to 1,360 MW. These are of a similar type of reactor (RBMK-1000) as at the Chernobyl power plant, hence the European Union's insistence on closing them.
Unit 1 came online in December 1983, and was closed on 31 December 2004. Unit 2 came online in August 1987 and was closed on 31 December 2009 at 2300 EET (2100 UTC). Plans to build a third and fourth reactor at Ignalina were never finished because of the public backlash against nuclear power following the Chernobyl accident of April 1986: the partially completed Unit 3 was later demolished.
Preparations for the construction began in 1974. Field work began four years later. In 1987, Unit 2 was completed. Originally, Unit 2 was scheduled for launch in 1986, but its commissioning was postponed for a year because of the Chernobyl accident. The construction of Unit 3 was suspended and its demolition began in 1989. The town of Visaginas was built to accommodate the plant's workers. At the time, the settlements at Visaginas were no more than villages, making it a prominent example of "greenfield investment", a situation when a large town or industrial facility is built in an area with little existing infrastructure. It was sited next to the largest lake in Lithuania, Lake Drūkšiai (part of which lies in neighbouring Belarus) which provided the plant's cooling water. The temperature of the lake has risen by about 3 degrees Celsius (5 °F), causing eutrophication. The plant's discharges of radionuclides and heavy metals have accumulated in lake waters and sediments.
According to an Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant press release, on 6 June 2009 at 0915 EEST (0615 UTC) the automatic reactor protection system was actuated and Unit 2 was shut down. No radiation was released. Plant officials decided to keep it off-line for thirty days, performing the annual preventative maintenance in June, instead of 29 August–27 September as originally scheduled.
Its spent fuel was placed in CASTOR and CONSTOR storage casks during the 2000s.
As a condition of entry into the European Union, Lithuania agreed in 1999 to close existing units of the station, citing the Ignalina plant's lack of a containment building as a high risk. The European Union agreed to pay €820 million decommissioning costs and compensation, with payments continuing until 2013.
Closure of the plant faced fierce opposition from the Lithuanian people. The plant provides income to most local residents. To compensate for this, a project was started to encourage tourism and other small businesses. Others were afraid that the price of electricity would skyrocket or that Lithuania would be left to cope with the extremely high costs of decommissioning the plant and disposing of its nuclear waste. A 2008 referendum proposed extending the operation of Unit 2 until a new nuclear plant could be completed as a replacement; the referendum gained 1,155,192 votes for the proposal, but ultimately failed to gain the 50% turnout necessary to be passed. President Valdas Adamkus opposed the measure on grounds that continued operation would not respect Lithuania's international commitments.
The Lithuanian government forecasts that the electricity price for households will rise by 30% from 2010. Analysts expect that the shutdown could cut Lithuania's gross domestic product growth by 1–1.5%, and increase inflation by 1%. Ignalina's production will be compensated for by production of the fossil fuel Elektrėnai Power Plant as well as by imports from Russia, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The closure may test Lithuanian-Russian relations. Responding to concerns that Lithuania would become more dependent on Russian energy sources that could be withdrawn if relations deteriorate, President Dalia Grybauskaitė issued reassuring statements in late 2009.
New power plant
There was discussion during the 1990s and 2000s of building a new nuclear power plant at the same site, forestalling the likelihood of an upcoming power shortage in the region. On 27 February 2006, at a meeting in Trakai, the Prime Ministers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia signed a communiqué which invited state-owned energy companies in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to invest in the design and construction of a new nuclear power plant in Lithuania. On 28 June 2007, Lithuania's parliament adopted a law on building a new nuclear power plant, the formal start of a project. On 30 July 2008, the power companies of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Poland agreed to set up the Visaginas Nuclear Plant Company, which will be responsible for construction of the new power plant with a capacity of 3,000–3,200 megawatts. The government of Lithuania remains committed to the Visaginas project and hopes to solicit construction bids by late 2009/early 2010, with a completion date of 2018–2020. While several international companies are interested in bidding on the project, the question of how it will be financed amidst a global recession raises doubts on if, not when, construction will begin at Visaginas.