Belarus: Atomic power on the EU’s doorstep

The Ostrovets nuclear power plant takes shape and gradually emerges from the mists of northwest Belarus. [Sam Morgan]

A nuclear power plant on the EU’s border with Belarus continues to court controversy due to a number of incidents during its construction and serious concerns raised by neighbouring countries. EURACTIV.com visited the ex-Soviet nation in October to learn more.

On the European Union’s northeastern frontier, two massive cooling towers loom out of the mist near a small Belorussian town. This is the nuclear plant of Ostrovets, Belarus’s first foray into atomic power and a source of national pride for the former Soviet country.

Construction has been ongoing at the site for five years and the first of two reactors is scheduled to come online in mid-2019. Both cooling towers are all but finished and the two reactor buildings and turbine halls have taken shape.

But the project is controversial. Located just 16km from the Lithuanian border and only 45km from the capital of Vilnius, the plant has been opposed from the very beginning by the Baltic neighbour, which has raised its objections at the highest level.

Belarus maintains that it has complied with all the legal requirements usually imposed during the planning and construction of a nuclear power plant (NPP) and insists that the site, 150km from its own capital of Minsk, was the only viable location.

The government has also repeatedly highlighted comments made by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano, who last year hailed Belarus as “one of the most advanced” of the so-called “newcomer countries” to nuclear energy.

View of the site from an observation deck. From right to left: the two reactor buildings, the turbine halls and the two cooling towers, shrouded in mist.

Location, location, location

Lithuania has made it clear that the country has no objections to Belarus pursuing nuclear ambitions and Ambassador-at-Large Darius Degutis, who follows the issue closely, told EURACTIV that his country would even have considered investing in such a project if done correctly.

But the Ostrovets location is unacceptable for Vilnius, which maintains that Belarus has ignored international standards and even its own findings in choosing the site.

Project leaders claim that 74 sites were considered, using recommendations provided by the IAEA, and that geological surveys narrowed a three-location shortlist down to just Ostrovets in 2008.

Established practices now include inviting the IAEA to sites earmarked for NPPs in order for the agency to carry out a Site and External Events Design Review Service (SEED) test, a comprehensive assessment of the area, before construction ever begins.

But Belarus could not take advantage of this option because the first SEED mission was carried out in Bangladesh in 2014, by which time construction had already begun. 

Only in January 2017 did IAEA inspectors come to Ostrovets, at a stage when 70% of the plant was already completed. Belarus reported that the IAEA mission backed the site location.

That is refuted by Lithuania, which instead insists that IAEA officials were only invited to carry out two out of a possible six inspections as part of the SEED test. Those included technological and computer assessments but excluded choice of site and environmental impact evaluation.

Belarus insists a full evaluation was carried out.

The IAEA’s report nevertheless concluded that “appropriate steps” have been taken in terms of site safety and site-specific design parameters, urging the NPP’s engineers to give consideration to “future developments of safety improvements” highlighted by its post-Fukushima report.

Ambassador Degutis stressed that he was not surprised by the IAEA’s positive assessment of the latter two modules because he “has no doubts that the technology built by [Russian state atomic corporation] Rosatom is sound and up to scratch, as their reactors are certified and used in EU countries like Finland and Hungary”.

Indeed, the Russian-designed VVER-1200 reactor is one of the most advanced designs of its type in the world, with the first unit coming online at the Novovoronezh power plant in western Russia.

Hárfás Zsolt, a Hungarian nuclear expert, told an energy expo in Minsk (11 October) that the Russian technology is of the highest standard, adding that his country had insisted on best available techniques when commissioning the Paks nuclear plant.

As part of a state aid investigation, the European Commission even acknowledged in March 2016 that the technology used in the Central European country meets the highest international standards.

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But site location remains the main sticking point because Ostrovets appears to breach one of the post-Fukushima disaster recommendations made by the agency, which suggests “major concentrations of population” within 100km of new NPPs should be evacuated within one day of an emergency being declared.

Vilnius is home to more than half a million people and Latvia’s second largest city, Daugavpils, with nearly 100,000 inhabitants, is also around 100km from the Belorussian site.

Degutis pointed out that the IAEA made this recommendation in May 2013 and major construction work began at Ostrovets later the same year. However, Belarus has refuted this point by highlighting that it chose the site in 2008 and the measures are not retroactively applicable.

Belarus is also yet to fully satisfy the criteria of the Espoo and Aarhus conventions on cross-border communication and public oversight but says it will soon adhere to both.

Lukashenko blues

Belarus has also been accused of ignoring scientific advice produced by its own institutions. A report seen by EURACTIV from 1993, authored by the Academy of Science, concluded that out of 70 sites evaluated, two locations on the eastern frontier with Russia were preferable.

The report also insisted that the Ostrovets site “must not be considered for a nuclear power plant, because of registered seismic activity”.

Belarus, including one of the members of the country’s national science academy, now claims that the report was flawed and that the techniques used did not produce accurate findings.

Belorussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”, assumed power in 1994 and his country has been routinely accused of clamping down on anti-government activists and opposition forces.

In the late 1980s, the area of Ostrovets was struck by a low-magnitude earthquake and a larger seismic event measuring over 5.0 on the Richter scale hit the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad in 2004.

Nevertheless, Belarus has signalled it now wants to be transparent about the plant and is preparing a ‘national report’ for the European Commission.

The head of communications at Belarus’s nuclear safety department (Gosatomnadzor), Oleg Sobolev, revealed that the document is currently being translated and will contain the results of stress tests carried out last year.

The report will primarily focus on technological issues and safety concerns like evacuation procedures. Degutis voiced hope that EU officials will “be very attentive to it” but also questioned the value of the report given Belarus’s alleged reluctance to communicate details of the project when asked.

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Atomic mishaps

A number of incidents during construction have further added to safety concerns. During transport of a reactor vessel from Russia to Belarus last year, the 300-tonne component was dropped from a height of several metres.

It took several weeks for full details about the story to leak and the precise nature of the incident is still contested by Belarus and the project’s opponents.

Rosatom First Deputy Director General Alexander Lokshin, whose company manages all of Russia’s nuclear assets, insisted that the vessel was unharmed during the incident and even added that there would be “no technical obstacles” to using it.

Nevertheless, the Belorussian government eventually asked for it to be replaced, after significant external political pressure, citing it as a matter of public acceptance, not technical compliance.

Ostrovets’ chief engineer told a press conference at the site that “due to the scale of a project of this nature, incidents are unavoidable”, adding that it was the installation company that had dropped the vessel and that “safety is paramount”.

The reactor vessel for Ostrovets 1 during construction. [AEM Technology]

But lightning does indeed strike twice and in July of this year, during rail transport of another reactor vessel, the casing containing the all-important piece of machinery came into contact with a pole near the side of the railway, leaving deep scratches on the vessel’s protective metal packaging.

After close inspection by NPP officials and the Russian engineers who assembled the vessel, it was agreed that the casing had done its job and completely protected it from any damage.

The head of reactor assembly at the site explained that “when a package arrives in the mail and the box is dented but the contents completely undamaged, you do not throw away what’s inside”.

Other officials insisted that it was “a situation, not an incident” and revealed that the Belorussian railway company has been contacted in order to avoid a repeat “situation”.

There have also been unconfirmed reports of the workforce stealing construction materials like concrete, in lieu of unpaid wages, and of the build quality suffering as a result.

NPP Vice-President at ASE Group Vitaly Medyakov dismissed both as mere rumours and underlined that “extensive controls mean everything is up to code”.

On 18 and 19 October, Belarus held a large-scale safety drill involving over 300 people, in which responses to nuclear accidents were simulated. They included emergencies at nuclear fuel storage facilities, a rail collision and fire-fighting drills.

One of the many safety drills carried out last month. [Naviny]

More than just business

Belarus has pointed out that the NPP will cut its dependence on Russian gas (currently around 95% annually) by 5 billion cubic metres every year. Its energy ministry also insists that the goals of the Paris Agreement necessitate using atomic power in order to decarbonise the Belorussian economy.

“For Belarus, due to its geographical location, natural conditions and climatic features, NPP construction is the best way to fulfil its international obligations while maintaining its current level of energy consumption,” said the plant’s deputy chief engineer for engineering support, Vitaly Malishevskiy.

Government officials also explained at the Minsk energy expo that Belarus’s energy security targets mean that the country cannot be dependent on one partner.

In early 2007, Russian gas and oil companies cut supply to pipelines running through Belarus, with Moscow accusing Minsk of siphoning off oil without permission. Gazprom also hiked its prices, leading to a bitter dispute between the two countries that was only resolved in August of the same year.

But Lithuania has alleged that the whole Ostrovets issue is about more than just energy and that “a greater game is going on” and that the power station will just replace one form of dependence with another.

The bilateral deal between Minsk and Moscow sealed an $11bn loan to build the plant but includes an annual interest rate of 9.5% and makes Russia the exclusive supplier of nuclear fuel for the estimated 60-year shelf-life of the plant.

Degutis, a veteran of European diplomacy, explained that relations between Lithuania and Belarus were in fact stable before the plant became an issue. He suggested that “some larger countries” saw these improved ties and feared that Belarus was warming too much to the West, adding that Ostrovets was the right “irritant to introduce into the dynamic and cause instability”.

In 2013, once the location had been chosen, President Aleksandr Lukashenko, considered a close ally of Moscow, said in a speech that “our NPP and Kaliningrad’s NPP are a fishbone in the throat of the European Union and the Baltic States”.

Lithuanian counterpart President Dalia Grybauskaitė this year confirmed her government’s stance on Ostrovets, branding it “a Russian geopolitical project directed at Lithuania. Lithuania must do everything possible to stop the project.”

These complaints were given short shrift by Rosatom First Deputy CEO for Corporate Development and International Business Kirill Komarov, who said “the way Lithuanians voice their concerns and deal with the answers suggests that the real issues for them are connected to politics and commercial interests and not to genuine worries about safety or security”.

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Market weapons

But Belarus is not a member of the European Union so it is not subject to the oversight of the European Commission or the Euratom treaty. The IAEA’s recommendations are only voluntary and it is up to the NPP host country to decide on matters relating to nuclear power.

The Baltic States have made significant progress over the last decade in connecting their gas and oil pipelines to the European network but they are still largely reliant on Russian electricity infrastructure, a relic of the Soviet era.

Plans to disconnect and synchronise with the European grid have been in motion for a number of years but the emergence of the Ostrovets NPP has accelerated the region’s drive to break ties with the eastern grid.

Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser, although downplaying his country’s involvement in the Belarus-Lithuania spat, told EURACTIV that full synchronisation is of greater importance in order to fully integrate with the EU’s internal market and “minimise Russian influence”.

A representative of Latvia’s economy ministry highlighted the amount of work that has already been put into synchronisation and how it led to a 14% drop in electricity prices last year.

This is set to play an extremely important role in the Ostrovets affair going forward, as electricity imports could be used by the Baltic States as leverage against Belarus, and indirectly Russia.

Ambassador Degutis told EURACTIV that the whole project was based on the idea of selling electricity to the Baltic grid and on to Scandinavia, where prices are often two or three times higher than in Belarus. Minsk denies this and claims that the NPP at this stage is purely for domestic use.

Nevertheless, Lithuania has taken the extraordinary step of passing legislation that directly targets Belarus. Two new laws recently passed by the Lithuanian parliament recognise Ostrovets as a threat to Lithuania’s security and grant utility companies the right to refuse to purchase electricity with an origin certificate from the NPP.

As Belarus is neither a member of the single market nor the World Trade Organisation, Lithuania claims that it has the right to impose such an embargo.

Latvia’s economic ministry also highlighted that all third-country electricity imports to the Baltics currently come through Lithuania, which represents about 16% of all imports. This makes Vilnius well-placed to dictate the market and exert more pressure on Belarus.

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Lead by example

Ambassador Degutis pointed out that the now-shelved Ignalina nuclear plant on Lithuania’s border with Belarus should have provided a blueprint for Belarus to follow. Initially commissioned in the early 1980s, its two Soviet-era nuclear reactors were shut down as part of the Baltic country’s EU membership bid.

In 2007, plans were put in motion to build a new reactor at the site, in a joint regional effort between the Baltic States and Poland. Degutis was personally involved in the planning phase and was even part of the delegation sent to Minsk to outlay the project to the Belorussian authorities.

The ambassador added that the consortium of countries followed the IAEA’s recommendations to the letter, as well as EU rules, launching a tender process for the environmental assessment and informing all neighbouring states about the details of the planned power plant.

Ultimately, regional nuclear failed to take off because of the global financial crisis and internal pressures within the countries involved but nevertheless, Degutis insisted that Belarus has not repaid the courtesy Lithuania and its partners granted it at the time.

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Public opinion

For Belorussians, the NPP is a source of national pride. The town of Ostrovets, roughly 20km from the construction site, has seen large-scale investment in housing and public infrastructure since the location was chosen.

One local woman, a waitress at a restaurant in the town, said she was “glad the plant is here” and that “it brings jobs and money”.

In order to foster support in the area, one of the first buildings to be completed was an information centre in the town itself, which details the progression of the project from drawing board to its current stage.

Olga Volkova from Belorussian NGO Environment Initiative explained that public environmental monitoring has been carried out “from the outset” and said those results “are available to the population of Belarus and other countries”.

But on the other side of the EU border, Lithuanians, Latvians and, to a lesser extent, Estonians are very concerned about the issue, which regularly makes daily newspaper headlines. In a recent poll, 75% of Lithuanians said they were fearful about the Ostrovets plant.

Lithuania’s Degutis also suggested that countries in Western Europe do not appreciate the severity of the situation on the EU’s eastern border and that maybe the lessons of Chernobyl have not been fully taken on board.

He warned that the issue should not be taken lightly, pointing out that Fukushima, whose nuclear disaster prompted Germany to decide to phase out atomic power, is 15,000km away from Berlin and that Ostrovets is just 1,000km.

It is too late for Lithuania or the project’s other detractors to halt construction of Ostrovets but this particular cross-border dispute has plenty of miles left under the bonnet.

Find more photos from Belarus here.

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