Lithuania is holding a four-day national emergency nuclear drill amid mounting concerns as a Russian-made nuclear power plant in neighboring Belarus nears completion.
The Astravets nuclear power plant is less than 50 kilometers from Lithuania's capital Vilnius and the country's government has long argued the plant will not meet Western safety standards. In a sign of the growing concern, the government recently ordered millions of iodine pills in case of a nuclear accident at the plant.
Rosatom, the Russian nuclear giant contracted to construct the plant with two VVER-1200 reactors, has rejected charges it will pose a safety risk. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has not raised alarms over safety.
Opening the unprecedented drills on October 1, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda warned the nuclear power plant also “poses a threat to Lithuanian national security.”
According to the Baltic News Network, the early warning system was tested on the first day of the exercises. Sirens blared and public television broadcast warnings instructing citizens to "close doors and windows, seal ventilation systems," and head for the basement. Residents also received text messages on their mobile phones.
Evacuation drills were due to be carried out on October 2. Radiation readings involving helicopters were scheduled for October 3 before the Interior Ministry was due to give its assessment of the drills on October 4.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed off on the nuclear power plant back in 2008, partly to lessen the country’s dependence on Russia to meet its energy needs.
The nuclear power plant, however, is being built by Russian companies contracted by Rosatom and Moscow is jointly financing the project, which is estimated to cost between $5 billion and $22 billion. Unit 1 is due online by the end of 2019, a year after its initial launch date; Unit 2 is seen on stream in 2020.
The construction site has witnessed a series of mishaps, including the dropping of a 330-ton nuclear reactor casing in July 2016. It was only more than two weeks after the incident that the Belarusian Energy Ministry confirmed there had been an “emergency situation” at the construction site.
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.
On August 19, the Associated Press reported that Lithuania expected to receive more than 4 million iodine tablets to be handed out to citizens in case of a radiation leak at the Astravets nuclear power plant. Iodine is often taken to protect the thyroid gland from some types of radiation.
IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said in Minsk in April 2016 that the UN 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."
The IAEA has sent team of experts to the Astravets construction to conduct regular checks of safety procedures at the site.
In its latest report, the IAEA experts “observed a commitment by the operator of the Belarusian nuclear power plant to strengthening safety,” ahead of the start of operation of the first nuclear reactor.