Incident at Belarus Nuclear Power Plant Raises Safety Concerns

Photo from the website greenbelarus.info

On 10 July 2016 there was an incident at the construction site of the new Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant.

According to local whistle-blower Mikalai Ulasevich, a crane dropped the 330-tonne reactor from a height of 2-4 metres during a test lift. Until 26 July the officials either actively denied the incident or simply kept silent.

For Belarusians, this is painfully reminiscent of Chernobyl. When the Chernobyl accident occurred in April 1986, the Soviet government chose to conceal information from the people for as long as it could. This decision exacerbated the situation for the general population, who did not know to take precautions against radiation fallout.

The location of the construction site for the future nuclear plant has also caused tensions with neighbouring Lithuania. Astraviec NPP – just 50 km from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius – poses an immediate threat to residents of Lithuania in the case of an accident. However, despite the significant social and political controversy and safety concerns the Belarusian government has chosen to continue with the project.

The official line vs rumours

The Ministry of Energy, the government entity responsible for the plant, released an official statement only on 26 July. It confirmed that rumours of the incident, now circulating for more than two weeks, were true. The wording of the official press release described "an emergency at the site", which occurred during "the horizontal movement of the frame". On 1 August the general contractor confirmed the safety of the reactor, but suggested that it should be up to the Belarusian authorities to decide whether to use this particular item.

Belarus, the country that suffered the most severe consequences of the Chernobyl disaster in 1989, has now decided to build its own nuclear power plant. The project for the NPP, conceptualised in 2007 and first initiated in 2009, lacks both transparency and public support and controversy surrounding it is plentiful.

First, the Belarusian government could not find enough funding for it, so the money had to come from Moscow with strings attached. Russia agreed to provide $9bn out of $11bn required for the NPP, as a result of which Rosatom, or Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, won the bid as the major partner in construction and supply.

Secondly, the Lithuanian government protested against the choice of the NPP construction site due to its location just 12 Image from tut.bymiles from the Lithuanian border. They also accused Belarusian authorities of violating the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (the Espoo Convention). The recent incident has only added to rising tensions between the two governments.

According to Delfi news agency, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė stated on Tuesday, 26 July:

Incidents at the Astravyets power plant, a nuclear facility that Belarus is building close to its border with Lithuania, show that Vilnius has reason to be concerned about the project's safety.

Lithuania has sent at least three notes to the Belarusian government voicing their concerns for safety.

When nuclear becomes political

As Mikalai Ulasevich, the whistle-blower and member of the Belarusian oppositional United Civil Party stated on Wednesday, 27 July: “The only way to ensure the safety of the Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant is by shutting it down.” This seems to be a common sentiment among many opposition leaders. According to Yury Tsarik, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies on 28 July:

This situation (the construction of the NPP) has provided some real grounds for oppositional action, and allowed them to play on the widespread phobia in Belarus of nuclear energy. Andrey Dzmitryeu (opposition leader of “Tell the Truth” Initiative) has already announced his intention to do so.

Belarusian authorities defend their right to build the nuclear power plant. The project will address the demand for power in Belarus, which has scarce domestic fuel resources. Belarus aims to diversify its energy resources, including renewable resources, replace the import of natural fossil fuels (five million tonnes of fuel-equivalent a year), reduce electric power production costs, and increase the country's capacity to export electric power. Ideally it will also decrease the country's energy dependence on Russia.

Furthermore, the project will generate approximately 8,000 jobs during the peak construction period and 1,000 new permanent jobs when it starts operations, according to the Ministry of Energy. In an attempt to bring down costs and boost the popularity of the project, Belarusian authorities have handpicked 400 students to send to the construction site. According to news portal Tut.by, the young people had to go through rigorous competitive selection to qualify for a summer job there.

Moving forward despite controversy

Ironically, this week experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced their intention to visit Belarus to examine the construction site of the NPP.

The Site and External Events Design Mission (SEED) was supposed to be carried out before the construction site was approved. This constituted one of the Lithuanian government's requirements for Belarusian authorities regarding the plant’s safety.

Lithuania has already announced that it would not purchase any energy from the Astraviec nuclear power plant. They have also promised to bring the issue to the attention of neighbouring countries and urge them to join the boycott, according to the Lithuanian news agency Delfi.

This is not an empty threat. According to expert estimates the Astraviec NPP will produce enough energy for export. Vladimir Nistyuk, from the Belarusian association “Renewable Energy”, commented in Deutsche Welle that: "There is no one around Astraviec willing to buy energy from the plant, yet it could produce a net surplus of energy as early as 2018”.

Undeterred by the rising controversy, Belarusian authorities have chosen to move forward with their plans. According to official information, the first energy unit should be completed by 2018, the second one – by 2020.

Belarus has once again found itself between a rock and a hard place. Going forward with the construction may mean deteriorating relations with Lithuania and possibly the European Union, while freezing the project may antagonise Russia.

Galina is an independent consultant for UN in gender equality and domestic violence prevention, currently works at Emerge in Boston, MA, a Batterer Intervention Programme.

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