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Belarus Proceeding With Russian-Built Nuclear Plant Despite Accidents, Quake Worries, And Neighbors' Objections 

Many fear that the soon-to-be-completed nuclear power plant in Astravets, Belarus, could be prone to accidents, especially as it is located in an area that is seismically active. (file photo)

With the construction of Belarus's controversial Astravets nuclear power plant hurtling forward, the dissonance between Minsk and Vilnius over the project could not be greater.

Lithuania -- whose capital lies less than 50 kilometers from Astravets -- has protested vehemently against the construction of the plant since it was announced in 2008.

Along with objecting to Minsk's decision to build the plant so close to Vilnius -- which like Astravets is within a seismic-activity zone -- Lithuanian officials are concerned that Minsk has not allowed a full "peer review" by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Adding to the worries in Vilnius is the secrecy of Belarusian officials when faced with 10 accidents and three deaths that occurred during the construction of the plant, which began in 2013.

"Regretfully, from the very beginning the Belarusians never discussed any of these issues with us," Darius Degutis, appointed in January as Lithuania's envoy for issues related to the Astravets nuclear plant, told RFE/RL.

Apparently Nontransparent

Belarusian officials were slow to report any of the string of accidents that occurred during construction, including when a 330-ton nuclear reactor shell fell and was damaged on July 10, 2016, ultimately having to be replaced.

"We are worried about the proximity, we are worried about huge violations of safety, about the potential impact on the environment [and] on our people," Degutis said.

Belarus, however, feels it has already responded to Vilnius's concerns.

While addressing a visiting group of journalists during an August 23 tour of Astravets, Belarusian Deputy Energy Minister Mikhail Mikhadzyuk said Minsk had provided Lithuania "with all the answers" to its worries regarding the plant and complained that officials in Vilnius have been "politicizing" the issue.

Lithuanian officials reject that claim, saying Belarus has ignored their concerns about the plant.

The Astravets plant is due to become operational within a couple of years.(file photo)
The Astravets plant is due to become operational within a couple of years.(file photo)

Mikhadzyuk said that along with the "incidents" during construction at Astravets -- including the dropping of the nuclear reactor -- there had been three deaths which he said was a "reasonable figure" considering the scale of the project.

Under the agreement with Rosatom, Russia's nuclear giant, Belarus will get a credit line of up to $10 billion to construct Astravets, with Minsk having to pay for just 10 percent of the total cost. The deal also stipulates that Russia will be the sole supplier of the plant's nuclear fuel.

The first reactor is due to begin operating in December 2019 and the second one in 2020.

In selecting Astravets from more than 60 other sites as the location for their first nuclear power plant, Belarusian officials apparently disregarded IAEA recommendations made in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster that plants not be built within 100 kilometers of major population centers.

"The 100-kilometer radius from Astravets affects basically 950,000 [Lithuanian citizens]...which is almost half of our entire population," said Degutis, who claimed that although the IAEA guidance on the proximity of large populations to nuclear power plants was issued in May 2013, Belarusian officials ignored it and broke ground at Astravets six months later.

Quaking Worries

Lithuania is also worried about the seismic activity that has occurred in the region where the plant is being built, pointing to two minor earthquakes in 1987 and a report by the Belarusian Academy of Sciences in 1993 that stated Astravets was unsuitable as a location for a nuclear plant because of the tremors.

A serious earthquake also shook the region in 1908 and there have been a total of 40 known earthquakes in the East Baltic Sea region since the 17th century.

In recent months, Lithuania has tried to step up the pressure on Belarus over Astravets by approving two laws.

The first one, passed in April, will ban the usage, trading, or exchange of electricity generated at Astravets within Lithuania. This would prevent any such energy from Belarus moving to the Scandinavian countries as well.

Darius Degutis, Lithuania's envoy for issues related to the Astravets nuclear plant. (file photo)
Darius Degutis, Lithuania's envoy for issues related to the Astravets nuclear plant. (file photo)

"We are not going to allow this [transfer of Belarusian nuclear energy to Northern Europe]," Degutis said. "We believe this [ban on Astavets-produced energy] will have a serious impact on their business plan.

"Let us see how things will develop when they find out that the [quick payback they expected] on their $10 billion investment [will be hard to get] when no one from the Baltic and Nordic side will be buying anything."

Poland recently joined the boycott of Astravets energy.

"I think that the technologies are not safe and a lack of safety resulted in the Chernobyl disaster," said Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski on August 6. "Therefore we are against the Astravets nuclear power plant and we are not going to buy its energy.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), meanwhile, issued a recommendation on June 27 for the construction at Astravets to be suspended.

"This really ought to be something that concerns all of Europe, but I do not see that the whole EU is getting in gear to put pressure on the Belarusian authorities to allow for more thorough inspections," said Sijbren de Jong, a strategic analyst at The Hague Centre on Strategic Studies.

The new Lithuanian law also authorized the beginning of the country's removal from the former Soviet power-grid system that covers Belarus and western Russia and to start synchronizing with the main Western energy grid. Though the entire process will take several years to complete, it is a significant move for Lithuania, which imports about two-thirds of its electricity.

The second law passed by Vilnius, in June, declares Astravets to be a threat to Lithuania's national security.

Safety Claims

Belarusian officials, however, continue to insist their first nuclear plant is being built with the utmost regard for safety.

"Right now this is the safest design that exists," Anatol Bondar, the chief engineer at Astravets, told the Financial Times on September 19. He added that all the lessons learned from Chernobyl -- from which 70 percent of all nuclear fallout landed on Belarus -- and Fukushima have been incorporated into the design of Astravets.

Minsk also cites the report of an IAEA Site and External Events Design (SEED) visit to Astravets in January 2017 which concluded that officials had taken "appropriate steps" to "address all necessary aspects of site safety and site-specific design parameters...for relevant external hazards."

"Have a look for yourself, there's nothing there" -- a satirical cartoon about the Astravets plant published by RFE/RL's Belarus Service.
"Have a look for yourself, there's nothing there" -- a satirical cartoon about the Astravets plant published by RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

Such a review during a SEED mission can include up to six modules, but the Astravets visit only involved two modules of examination, per Minsk's wishes.

"Since 2013 we have asked Belarusian officials repeatedly to invite the IAEA to come for [a review but they] only agreed [to do it] in 2017 and they limited [it]," said Degutis.

Astravets has also not yet met the full requirements of the UN's Espoo and Aarhus conventions, which require cross-border environmental testing to be done and broad public oversight.

Belarusian officials say both conventions will soon give their approval to Astravets.

Many opponents of Belarus's nuclear plant are eagerly awaiting an upcoming "stress test" to be conducted under European Union auspices.

Reliant On Russia

"In addition to providing the bulk of the financing and the fuel for Astravets, Russia's Rosatom also provides the technology (two VVER-1200 nuclear reactors), the training, and the expertise to run the plant.

"The Belarusians are struggling -- because of the huge dependence on Russia, in every aspect: financial, technological, even the labor force is coming from Russia [because] Belarus does not have enough [nuclear specialists]," Degutis said.

A common refrain from official Minsk and other proponents of Astravets is that nuclear energy will allow Belarus to rid itself of its addiction to the oil and gas it buys exclusively from Russia's Gazprom.

"[Belarus] needs to diversify its energy portfolio, and sees nuclear as one way to do so," said de Jong. "The irony is that, if you become less dependent on Gazprom, you replace this partly with [dependency] on Rosatom. That is not necessarily helpful if your goal is reduced dependence [on Russia]."

Geopolitical Football?

There is another reason Lithuanians believe Belarus and Russia are building the Astravets nuclear plant.

"The Astravets nuclear power plant is a Russian geopolitical project, directed against Lithuania," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who has for several years been one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's harshest critics, said in February. "Lithuania must do everything possible to stop the Astravets NPP project and to demand safety and transparency."

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

Degutis points to a statement in a speech made by authoritarian Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2013.

"Our nuclear power plant [being built at Astravets] a fishbone in the throat of the EU and the Baltic states," said Lukashenka in an address at Minsk's Belarusian Agrarian Technical University.

Lithuanian officials also note with concern the creation of a new military unit -- ostensibly to protect the nuclear plant -- and an air base being built near Astravets at which the troops stationed there will undergo training in Belarus and Russia.

The construction of the nuclear plant at Astravets also highlights the rising power of Rosatom -- which is either building or has deals to build more than 25 nuclear reactors around the world, including in Finland, Turkey, Hungary, and India. It expects that number to increase to more than 80 in the coming years.