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Belarusian Nuclear Mishap Shows Soviet-Like Secrecy Still Rules

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Belarus is betting nuclear power will free it from Russia's energy grip. (Some 90 percent of Belarus's gas imports come from Russia.) The plant at Astravets, however, is being built by Russian companies and Moscow is jointly financing the project.

Belarus is betting nuclear power will free it from Russia's energy grip. (Some 90 percent of Belarus's gas imports come from Russia.) The plant at Astravets, however, is being built by Russian companies and Moscow is jointly financing the project.

Thirty years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in neighboring Ukraine, Belarus, which saw a quarter of its territory contaminated in the world's worst nuclear accident, is building its first energy plant powered by the atom.

However, mounting mishaps at the site in Astravets are raising concerns over safety not least in Lithuania whose capital, Vilnius, lies less than 50 kilometers from the site.

Making matters worse is the Belarusian authorities' opaque response, an uncomfortable echo of the Soviet Union's initial silence after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

"Frankly, [the Belarusian authorities] must understand that we cannot just rely on their words, because quality and culture of safety is not sufficient so far," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said in an interview with RFE/RL.

The latest accident took place on July 10, when a nuclear reactor shell was reportedly dropped while being moved.

Rumors of the snafu circulated before local resident Nikolai Ulasevich, who is a member of the opposition United Civic Party and running for parliament in elections on September 11, posted details on his Facebook page on July 25.

He said that a 330-ton nuclear reactor shell fell from a height of 2-4 meters on July 10 during an exercise ahead of its planned installation a day later, an event at which journalists were set to attend. Ulasevich said his claim had been backed by 10 people who passed on the information to him during his electoral signature-collecting campaign. The posting was quickly gobbled up by Belarusian opposition media.

More than two weeks later, on July 26, the Belarusian Energy Ministry confirmed that an "emergency situation" had occurred at the construction site on July 10. The ministry offered only a few more morsels of information, saying that the incident took place at the warehouse facility, while the reactor was being moved "horizontally."

Also on July 26, the Russian state-owned company Rosatom, the nuclear plant's main contractor, denied the reactor shell had been damaged, and should be installed as planned pending permission from supervisors.

Despite such assurances, on August 1, Belarusian Deputy Energy Minister Mikhail Mikhadyuk said installation of the reactor shell was being suspended pending further safety checks, according to Belapan.

On August 1, Rosatom again said the reactor shell was not damaged, but added the company could replace it if needed, hinting things could be more serious than officials are stating.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is betting nuclear power will free his country from Russia's energy grip. (Some 90 percent of Belarus's gas imports come from Russia.) The plant at Astravets, however, is being built by Russian companies and Moscow is jointly financing the project, which is estimated to cost between $5 billion and $22 billion. Unit 1 is due online in 2018 and Unit 2 in 2020. Two other reactors are planned by 2025, but construction on these units is only in the planning stage.

Soviet Deja Vu

Lukashenka remained tightlipped after the accident, prompting many to draw parallels with the Soviet authorities in 1986, when no information was issued about the Chernobyl accident for 10 days after the initial explosion.

"For me it's a natural deja vu, as if I traveled back in a time machine a quarter of a century when we were investigating the causes of the Chernobyl disaster. Then, it was the same, but the difference was it was a totalitarian state, the Soviet Union, and now it's the supposedly democratic government of Belarus," Yury Varonezhtsau, a physicist and former parliamentary deputy, said in an interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

"I don't believe that the authorities didn't know what happened there. The worst thing is that we don't know either. So, whether the reactor really did fall or whether some part burned, that's where I see the real danger in the situation," Varonezhtsau said.

Lukashenka, a five-term president who has been described as Europe's last dictator, has a difficult balancing act trying to improve relations with the EU while keeping the country's closest ally and financial backer, Russia, onside.

Nervous In Lithuania

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linkevicius said the lack of transparency on the part of Belarusian officials was unacceptable. "These incidents, happening from time to time, lack of transparency, we're learning about them from open sources, usually too late, then trying to get more information, and this is not how it should be in reality. This last incident when a nuclear reactor vessel was possibly damaged is very dangerous," Linkevicius said.

Lithuania and other critics say Minsk has failed to carry out an environmental-impact study for Astravets. The power plant will draw water for its cooling reactors from the Nevis River, which also supplies drinking water in Lithuania.

It's not the first mishap at the construction site, nor the first time Belarusian officials have dragged their feet divulging any details.

The structural frame of the nuclear service building at the site collapsed on April 8, as first reported by the Belsat independent TV station. According to the report, supervisors, under pressure to meet a deadline, ordered workers to pour too much concrete, causing the structure to collapse.

No mention of the accident was made in the Belarusian state media or by officials, with the spokesman at the plant first denying anything had happened. On May 6, the Belarusian Energy Ministry, however, did confirm an "incident" had occurred during the pouring of concrete, but the "defect" had been dealt with.

"All in all, we are really not satisfied with the process so far, and also we believe this is not just a bilateral problem, it's a regional [problem] and we would like to internationalize it as much as possible," Linkevicius said. Lithuania agreed to close its own Ignalina nuclear facility as part of its 2004 accession agreement with the EU.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said on July 26 that Vilnius would work with the international community to block the plant coming online if Minsk failed to take steps to ensure international safety standards at the site.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano said in Minsk on April 19 that the nuclear agency "has worked closely with Belarus on all aspects of this major project and will continue to offer every assistance." He said with two reactors under construction, Belarus "is one of the most advanced of what the IAEA calls ‘newcomer' countries."

Asked for comment on the July 10 incident, the IAEA press office offered only the following statement to RFE/RL: "For this nature of event, the IAEA does not provide the kind of assessment that you are seeking."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service