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Planned Belarusian Nuclear Plant Passes 'Stress Test,' Neighboring Lithuania Still Worried

The construction site of the first Belarusian nuclear power plant outside the town of Astravets, northwest of Minsk
The construction site of the first Belarusian nuclear power plant outside the town of Astravets, northwest of Minsk

BRUSSELS -- The planned Belarusian nuclear power plant at Astravets has "generally met the requirements" of a European Union "stress test" designed to avert repeats of the Fukushima disaster, while the controversial issue of the site -- less than 50 kilometers from the Lithuanian capital -- was not addressed in the test.

The results of the stress test were issued in a report presented on July 3 by a European peer-review team consisting of experts from 14 EU member states as well as Switzerland, Ukraine, and the European Commission.

EU member Lithuania quickly cautioned that the stress test was "not an overall safety assessment" and urged the European Commission to press Belarus to take recommended steps to improve nuclear safety -- and to make further EU cooperation with Minsk contingent on their implementation.

In addition to visiting the site of the plant, whose first reactor is expected to be operational in December 2019, team members asked the Belarusian authorities up to 460 questions related mainly to three specific issues: Arrangements for facing extreme natural events, plans for a response to a prolonged loss of electric power, and severe accident management.

The peer-review team issued concrete recommendations including the completion of a study of a 1908 seismic event in the region, the extension of a seismic observation network, and the creation of an alternative permanent power source in case of the simultaneous failure of off-site and emergency power supplies. But the planned location was not addressed.

Mark Foy, the chief inspector of the British Office for Nuclear Regulation and a member of the review team, told RFE/RL the stress test was developed solely "in response to what happened at Fukushima," where a tsunami that followed an earthquake ripped through a Japanese nuclear power plant in 2011.

"So, looking at extreme natural events, the response of the plant to prolonged loss of electrical power and ultimate heat sink and then severe accident management. The idea is that it is consistent, so that host countries recognize what is being requested and the approach that is going to be adopted," Foy said, adding, "It does not consider siting."

The planned site of the Astravets plant has been a concern for Lithuania ever since the project was announced in 2008. Vilnius is less than 50 kilometers away, meaning that Minsk has disregarded International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommendations made after the Fukushima disaster that plants should not be built within 100 kilometers of major population centers.

In a statement sent to RFE/RL after the presentation in Brussels, the Lithuanian Embassy to the EU said, "Although the stress test is an important exercise that allows [one] to evaluate the level of nuclear safety in the light of the lessons learnt from the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, we have to admit that it's not an overall safety assessment."

Lithuania expects the European Commission to remain "engaged in strengthening of nuclear safety in Belarus through follow-up assessment/monitoring of implementation of recommendations," the statement said, adding that "implementation of recommendations should be seen as a condition for further Belarus-EU cooperation."

It said that the first reactor at the plant must not be licensed to operate "until the recommendations are implemented and until safety documentation is updated in line with the European requirements."

The peer-review team has recommended that Belarus develop a national action plan containing all safety improvement measures and the schedules of their implementation, and has said the national action plan should be subject to a future review.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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