(RFE/RL) -- Russian officials today laid the foundation stone of a new nuclear power station in Russia's westernmost region, Kaliningrad, which is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.
Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov took part in the ceremony in the Neman district, along with Kaliningrad Governor Georgy Boos, and Sergei Kiriyenko, the chief of the national nuclear-energy corporation, Rosatom.
The site of the planned nuclear plant, located just 20 kilometers from Lithuania's border, has been a cause of concern for local residents and ecologists, for whom memories of the 1986 catastrophe at the Ukrainian nuclear plant of Chornobyl remain fresh.
More than 300,000 people were evacuated in the wake of the disaster from areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. It also spread a cloud of radiation across much of Europe.
Chornobyl's long-term health effects are still unclear, but the United Nations has predicted it will ultimately cause some 4,000 extra radiation-related deaths in the most affected areas.
Aleksei Yablokov, an environmentalist, academician, and former President Boris Yeltsin's science adviser, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that despite safety advances since the incident, nuclear power plants remain extremely dangerous.
"It's been said that nuclear power plants are like nuclear bombs that generate electricity. Any of them can explode," Yablokov says. "Not like an atomic bomb, of course, but with huge repercussions like Chornobyl. Even if the damage is 10 times less than Chornobyl, it would be a tragedy for millions of people."
Lack Of Public Participation
But Rosatom says the project is fully safe and in conformity with European standards. Company spokesman Sergei Novikov says that nuclear safety has advanced dramatically since Chornobyl and the authorities plan to keep the public informed about the new plant.
"This is a completely different type of reactor than the one at Chornobyl," Novikov says. "In order to keep people educated about this we will open a new information center in Kaliningrad even before the first block will be ready for use in 2016."
Apart from raising concerns about safety issues at the proposed plant, environmentalists are troubled by the delivery of nuclear fuel to Kaliningrad and by plans to deal with the resultant spent nuclear fuel.
Rashid Alimov, member of the nongovernmental organization ECOperestroika, tells RFE/RL that the information provided on the project does not properly address the issue.
"There was only one phrase saying that the waste would be sent to reprocessing plants" in Russia proper, Alimov says. "The only way to ship nuclear waste is by train [via] Lithuania. And the only sea route is by the Baltic Sea, which is also very dangerous."
A survey by the "Kaliningrad ekspress" newspaper showed that 43 percent of residents opposed the plant, while 26 percent said they supported it but had safety concerns.
Alimov says the public's opinion is not sufficiently taken into account. "We cannot say that information [about the project] is inaccessible, but there is a lack of public participation, or possibilities to have some influence on decision making," he says.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed a resolution on building the two-unit, 2.3 gigawatt Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in September 2009.
The first block is set to become operational in 2016 and the second one in 2018. Each generating unit will have an output capacity of 1,150 megawatts. The estimated cost stands at more than $6 billion.
It's hoped the new plant, which is expected to supply power to Kaliningrad with excess power being exported into the European market, will reverse the Russian territory's precarious dependence on energy imports.
Kaliningrad faces an energy crisis in the coming years with the shutdown last December of the last reactor in operation at Lithuania's Ignalina nuclear power station, combined with Polish plans to scrap coal-fired power generation.
Kaliningrad is also facing isolation as the three Baltic states are to be integrated in the Nordic countries' electricity market as the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant is to go online.
It is the first such project to be open to foreign capital, but it is not yet clear which companies will participate.
Earlier this month, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said her country was not interested in joining the project, saying it also had plans to build its own new nuclear power plant.RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report. With agency reports