ASTRAVETS, Belarus -- Mikalay Ulasevich was running in municipal elections in July 2016 when a local resident alerted him to a major accident at a nuclear power plant under construction close to this town in northwestern Belarus.
Workers had dropped a 330-ton reactor vessel from a height of several meters while attempting to install it, he was told, and officials were trying to keep the incident under wraps.
"Everybody knew about it, or almost everybody, but no one dared reveal it publicly," Ulasevich recalled recently at his house in the nearby village of Varnyany, with the plant's gargantuan cooling towers visible on the horizon. "They'd be putting themselves in the firing line."
As a member of the opposition United Civic Party and an outspoken critic of authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Ulasevich was campaigning on a promise to thwart the controversial project funded by a subsidiary of Russian state nuclear energy monopoly Rosatom.
But it wasn't until two weeks after he learned of the incident that he decided to share the news. In a Facebook post questioning the project's safety record, he asked whether Belarusian officials had notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the accident or told neighboring Lithuania, whose capital, Vilnius, lies a mere 40 kilometers from the Astravets plant.
It's likely the small Baltic country was already aware. Since the project was announced by presidential decree in 2008, backed by a $10 billion loan from Moscow, Lithuanian officials have waited with trepidation for Minsk to declare construction complete. Now, with its delayed launch slated to take place within months, their campaign to scupper those plans has shifted into high gear.
"This is a threat to our national security, public health, and environment," Lithuanian Energy Minister Zygimantas Vaiciunas told RFE/RL in an interview in Vilnius. "The key question is the site selection, which was done politically -- geopolitically."
Eastern Europe knows that nuclear power can be both a blessing and a curse. The April 1986 explosion of Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl plant, just south of Belarus in Ukraine, reverberated with catastrophic consequences as tainted clouds spread deadly radioactive particles across the region. The Soviet leadership restricted information about the accident and acted sluggishly, holding off evacuation of the local population for 36 hours. Another nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, the deadliest since Chernobyl, exacerbated global fears over the double-edged sword of atomic energy.
Because of its location downwind from Chernobyl, Belarus bore the brunt of that fallout. Its own plans for a nuclear power plant, announced in the 1980s, were shelved as the Soviet leadership and society at large grappled with the consequences of the tragedy. Now, critics say Belarus's decision to forge ahead with the plant near Astravets is a testament to the country's failure to draw conclusions from its past.
"The lessons that were given 30 years ago in Chernobyl have not been learned," Vaiciunas said.
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Three years before the disaster in Ukraine, the Soviet Union opened a nuclear plant in Lithuania, near the Belarusian border, with the same RBMK-type reactors that served Chernobyl. It was there that parts of HBO's five-part series on the nuclear disaster were filmed. Lithuania agreed to close it as a condition for its accession to the European Union in 2004, with the final reactor decommissioned in December 2009.
But in the past decade, nuclear-reactor design has advanced markedly, with an increased focus on accident prevention and a substantial improvement in safety records worldwide. And the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant, as the project is officially known, is no copy of Chernobyl or Fukushima.
The site near Astravets will run third-generation pressurized-water reactors distinct from earlier models used in Japan and Ukraine and equipped with safety measures aimed at precluding the kind of accidents that happened there: from so-called passive safety systems capable of triggering an automatic shutdown to a "core catcher" device installed in a concrete pit beneath the reactor that would trap molten fuel in case of overheating and make it nearly impossible for radiation to infiltrate the environment.
The same Russian-made VVER-type reactors that will be used near Astravets are slated for installation in a range of other countries including Finland, where Rosatom -- which has emerged as the world's leading nuclear reactor supplier -- is building another power plant amid a global push to install more than 30 of its reactors in deals worth over $100 billion.
Geopolitics In Play?
But while the Finnish regulator has imposed strict safety criteria pending approval of the project, Lithuania says, Belarus is launching its first reactor without completing all stages of a "stress test" -- an EU risk-and-safety assessment of a plant's ability to withstand damage from hazards.
But supporters of the project say that since Belarus is not an EU member, it is not obliged to complete the stress test, and the checks it did carry out were done voluntarily. The Astravets plant has also hosted visits from experts at international bodies, including the IAEA.
Although it's up in arms over what it says is Minsk's secrecy over the project, Lithuania doesn't so much dispute the technology used. It's the proximity to its population centers, and a history of seismic activity in the area, that rankles officials in Vilnius. In a 2017 resolution, the Council of Europe called on Belarus to suspend construction of the power station, citing a "lack of respect for international standards for nuclear safety" and "major incidents during the construction of this plant," which it asserted was being built on "an unsustainable site."
"Safety depends not only on the design -- it depends also on the site," said Darius Lukauskas, deputy head for radiation safety at Lithuania's nuclear energy regulator. "You have to answer three questions: where the plant is, what kind of facility it is, and how it is constructed."
The plant lies 140 kilometers from Minsk on Belarus's border with the European Union, and Vilnius suspects its location is part of a Kremlin push to retain a foothold on the European energy market and ensure the region's continued reliance on Russian hydrocarbon supplies. As Russia accelerates its push for closer integration with Belarus on Moscow's terms, neighbors also fear that Minsk will be beholden to Russia's geopolitical whims once the plant goes online.SEE ALSO: Neighbors Sound Alarm As Belarus Pushes Ahead With Nuclear Plant Despite Safety Fears
The administration of the Astravets power plant denies that. "Any talk of Belarus building a nuclear plant here to spite or harm someone -- be it Lithuania, the EU, or anyone else -- is wrong, and has always been," said Eduard Svirid, a spokesman for the nuclear plant. He said the site near the Lithuanian border was chosen after preliminary excavations at several locations in the country's east exposed a layer of chalkstone that rendered the ground unsafe for a power plant, and said past seismic activity in the region is exaggerated.
On a recent afternoon, Svirid showed an RFE/RL reporter around the project's visitor center in Astravets, some 15 kilometers from the plant itself, where he uses touchscreens and model reactors to outline the precautions the administration promises to have in place. He said the plant organizes four or five press tours of the site each year and was "unprecedentedly open toward the media and the general public."
In e-mailed comments to RFE/RL, Rosatom said that "it is practically impossible to conceal any event on the site, as key works are being regularly inspected by watchdogs."
"We are committed to the highest standards of transparency and have always provided the national regulator, international watchdogs, and all other stakeholders with any and all information they require on the design and progress of the project," it said.
'A Bone In The Throat'
But access to the plant itself and the surrounding area are strictly controlled, with a dedicated security detail stopping people who take photos and occasionally detaining journalists. Two Belarusian journalists said they were followed by plainclothes officers and taken to a police station for questioning when they tried to visit the site in 2013 along with Ulasevich and other opposition politicians. During a recent visit, an RFE/RL reporter was detained by the plant's security service, whose officers demanded that he delete all photos of the plant. Svirid defended the actions, warning that photos can be used by terrorists.
Lukashenka, meanwhile, has vehemently defended the project and smeared its opponents. In a speech before university students in the provincial capital, Hrodna, in 2013, the strongman president suggested that critics of the plant were "a fifth column" that had been "paid off." He called the Astravets plant and one under construction in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad "a bone in the throat of the European Union and the Baltic states," adding, "They'll be forced to buy electricity from us and from Russia."
Lithuania has sought to upend those plans. In April 2017, it announced a boycott on the import and transfer of electricity from Belarus, in an apparent bid to dim the Astravets plant's economic prospects. But Lithuania's electricity grid links up with Belarus and Russia, and while it plans to reorient to the EU's network, it acknowledges that process will take several more years.
In the meantime, its government is already preparing for a potential disaster. It has bought up 900,000 euros ($1 million) worth of iodine tablets in the event of a radiation leak, which Vilnius says could affect a third of Lithuania's population of 2.8 million. And it's holding drills across the country to test its readiness and ability to evacuate citizens should the unthinkable happen.
"It depends on the speed of the wind, [but] we could have only a couple of hours after a release to make decisions -- for example, to evacuate," said Lukauskas of the nuclear-safety regulator, one of the many state institutions involved in the drills. "And until the release reaches the Lithuanian border."
A Suspicious Secrecy
Back across the border, official opinion polls suggest that Belarusians are divided over the benefits of harnessing nuclear power in their country and over the construction of the Astravets plant. According to a December 2018 poll by the state Sociology Institute, support for the plant was at its highest in the Astravets district itself, with more than 71 percent in favor -- though the accuracy of such surveys is hard to gauge in the tightly controlled country.
A continuing influx of workers from Russia and other parts of Belarus is expected to almost double the town's population within the next five years, to over 22,000, with new housing blocks springing up on the outskirts. An active outreach campaign by authorities in Astravets since 2008 has also helped sway local opinion in favor.
But for Ulasevich, a geologist by training and one of the project's few outspoken critics in Belarus, it is the apparent secrecy around it that is most jarring. When the reactor vessel was dropped in July 2016, it wasn't until after his Facebook post that Belarusian officials confirmed publicly that the accident had taken place and pledged to replace the damaged vessel. (Svirid contended that the reactor shell was not dropped, but rather tilted during transportation in a way that caused one end to hit the ground.)
On a recent drive from his house in Varnyany to the nuclear plant, Ulasevich pointed out military installations that have emerged near Belarus's western border in recent years, part of what Lithuania suspects is a build-up aimed in part at protecting the strategic facility but also a symbol of growing tensions between the EU and Russia, which has close military ties with Belarus and leads a security alliance that includes its smaller western neighbor. Despite warming relations between Brussels and Belarus, which Lukashenka has sought to balance between Moscow and the West, the country's ties to Russia remain strong.
"This is a military-political project, not an economic one," Ulasevich said of the nuclear plant. "These tracking stations and army bases have been sprouting up like mushrooms after a summer rain."
In Vilnius, officials acknowledge they have no way of preventing the plant's launch, or strong-arming Belarus into making concessions over its sovereign territory. But Vaiciunas hopes that the country's continued vocal opposition will encourage countries and companies to boycott the project, just as it has done.
When the Chernobyl catastrophe struck, he said, "the key problem was not the accident itself, but the fact nobody was talking about it."
"That's the fear for us," he said. "You can't trust a country which is not communicating with you."