Belarus and Lithuania: A Tale of Two Nuclear Power Plants
Last Tuesday, Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius demanded that Belarus to not construct a nuclear power plant (NPP) in the vicinity of Lithuanian territory. He referred to the alleged breaking of the Espoo Convention by Belarus. Lithuania claims that Minsk is building potentially dangerous facility in a risky place without properly consulting and informing an exposed Lithuania.
The Belarusian opposition and NGOs raise environmental issues and criticised that the power plant is being built by Russians and on a Russian loan. Belarus does not need more energy, and the whole project would bring Minsk closer to Moscow, they claim. Yet Belarus already imports its energy and there are no better options to provide the country with energy. The only reasonable alternative – modernised thermal power plants – make the nation more dependent on Russian oil and gas with their ever increasing prices.
The Belarusian NPP is being constructed in the Astraviets district, a pristine location close to the Lithuanian border. There are only 53 km from the site to the Lithuanian capital, and the river Viliya which flows through Vilnius shall provide water for the NPP. So, Lithuania has reasons to be concerned. On the other hand, the Lithuanian government itself is going to build a new NPP next to a Belarusian National Park and position it close to the second largest Latvian city, Daugavpils.
Lithuanian officials emphasise the risky geology of the site. Gitana Grigaityte of Lithuanian Foreign Ministry told the BNS news agency that, “severe earthquakes were registered in the territory in late 1800s and early 1900s.” In 1908, some newspapers published a story from the Astravyets district about an earthquake which, however, was not registered by scientists. In a word, both the story and its pedigree are questionable.
As for water, the Astraviets NPP is planned to only take water from the Viliya, but not return it into the river. And the prevailing winds in Astraviets region blow eastward, i.e., onto Belarusian territory.
The Belarusian NPP apparently is causing such a reaction by Vilnius not only due to environmental reasons. The construction of the Astravyets plant effectively condemns the plans for building a new NPP in Lithuania to the wastebin. What investor would be willing to putt his money into a Lithuanian NPP, knowing full well that in a few years the whole region is going to have plenty of cheap energy? After all, the Kaliningrad NPP will go online by 2016, and the two reactors of the Belarusian NPP will be going up too – in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
It is no wonder that at the prospect of the project of a new NPP in Lithuanian, Visaginas is facing considerable problems. The agreement to this effect has already been signed by the three Baltic republics seven years ago. Although Vilnius has chosen the strategic investor – Japanese Hitachi – so far no investment agreements have been signed.
It should also be noted that last autumn a national referendum was held where Lithuanians voted against the construction of the NPP. In May, the Lithuanian prime minister still insisted that his country was not going to renounce its plans for an NPP even if it would not be economically profitable. This decision is not without a good reason – after shutting down its Ignalina NPP, Lithuania became dependent on Russian energy imports.
Belarus Lacks Energy
Belarusian opponents of the national NPP have two principal arguments against it. First, the country suffered the most of all countries in the region from the Chernobyl nuclear accident and, second, Belarusians will live better without nuclear facilities. Yet some facts show that, in all likelihood, Belarus cannot afford it. Even now when the energy-consumption in Belarus is lower than in neighbouring countries – 3,300 kWh annually (while in Ukraine 3,900 and in Poland 4,000), in winter as energy consumption rises, the country has to buy additional electricity abroad.
To understand the financial benefits of nuclear energy, Belarusians need only to look to their Lithuanian neighbors whose electricity expenses are much lower (almost a third compared to Belarus' present level) until their Ignalina NPP was been shut down in 2009. The attractiviness of nuclear energy for Belarusians rises with a rise in the price of gas and oil. Even though as a Russian ally and Belarus them at a lower price, it is important to consider that while in in 2010 one tonne of Russian oil cost USD $284, in the first quarter of this year it costs USD $422.
Belarusian energy system relies on a network of rather old facilities. The actual level of energy conversion efficiency in the country is only about 27% for its thermal power plants, and 19% for its heating and power stations. It is possible to raise it to 60%, but to do so Minsk needs a lot of money and time. Renewable energy resources in Belarus are limited to a small number of windpower generators and hydropower plants.
This means that the NPP is a solution to a real problem. The government failed to modernise its Soviet-era industry and has now to quickly fix its internal energy issues. Lukashenka admitted it recently speaking at the Belarusian State Agrarian Technical University, where he said: "Before exporting electricity, we must supply our internal market at reasonable prices.”
And even the two reactors of the Astraviets NPP with the capacity to generate up to 2,400 megawatts together might be not sufficient. To achieve the per capita energy consumption level of, say, Czech Republic, Belarus needs one still another similar plant. Earlier this month, Deputy Energy Minister Mikhail Mikhadzyuk announced that Belarus is willing to consider offers from potential investors eager to build a second nuclear power plant in the country.
More or Less Dependent on Russia
The second argument against the NPP underlines that to build the Astraviets NPP, Belarus takes loans and becomes increasingly dependant upon Russia. First of all, from Russia it has received around USD $9 billion, yet to build the necessary energy-transmitting lines Lukashenka signed in July another loan agreement with China for almost USD $324 million. Atomstroyexport, a subsidiary company of the Russian Nuclear Energy State Corporation Rosatom, is the prime contractor. The Astraviets NPP, however, is the property of Belarus.
It will not be easy for Belarus to repay this sizeable Russian loan. Yet with current trends of increasing energy costs, the NPP looks like a rather promising investment. As for other possible dependencies, they do not lessen Belarus' already critical dependency on Russia. Minsk takes Russian technology and equipment and trains its specialists in Russia in so many areas that one more such area will not change much.
In addition, the situation is not nearly clear-cut or fatal as it might seem. As the deputy director of BelNIPI Enerhapram Uladzimir Babrou emphasised at the beginning of the project, even with Russian-designed reactors Belarus would not become dependent on Russian uranium. Minsk had already studied the possibilities of getting the fuel from French and Chinese companies. Moreover, companies like the French Areva and the Japanese-American Westinghouse-Toshiba declared their willingness to supply fuel for the Russian-designed NPP. It will be easier for Belarus to diversify its sources of plutonium rather than natural gas or oil.
In today's Belarus, the opposition media and parties discuss every project in terms of policies pursued by Lukashenka's regime and its evil intentions. Meanwhile, the Astraviets NPP seems to have a sound economic basis and the idea itself does not belong to Lukashenka. Serious deliberations about the construction of a NPP in Belarus began decades ago. The now-closed Lithuanian NPP in Ignalina initially was projected to be built on the Belarusian shore of the Drysviaty Lake, and only later landed on the side Lithuanian of the border. And the National Academy of Sciences began to look for a site for the prospective NPP as early as in 1992.
The opponents of nuclear power plant recall the Chernobyl tragedy, which led to the contamination of up to a fifth of Belarus' territory with its nuclear fallout. Yet Belarus is already surrounded by three active NPPs – in Smolensk, Chernobyl and Rivne. Moreover, the planned Lithuanian NPP in Visaginas would literally be on the Belarusian border, and Poland plans to build up to three NPP in locations which have not yet been defined in north of their country.
Has Minsk Something to Hide?
Minsk failed to ensure more public participation in the Astraviets project not because it was hiding something. The Belarusian state regularly functions in this way and, for better or worse, actively witholds information from society. The NPP project itself has not been subejct of criticism from IAEA experts, who were regularly involved in its planning since at least 2009. The monitoring of the project's safety has been awarded to a Ukrainian institute.
Lithuania itself has little leverage over Belarus. Vilnius cannot even resort to the EU's help and lash out at the “nuclear project of the last dictatorship in Europe”, as it would contradict the usual mild position of Lithuania with regards to the Belarusian question. Belarus is also increasingly important for the Lithuanian economy – the latest illustration of this can be found in the Belarusian national potash company buying a terminal in Lithuanian Klaipeda port.
The Lithuanian government has grounded its protests on the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (informally called the Espoo Convention). The UN Economic Commission for Europe acts as the Convention's Implementation Committee. In March, the Committee found that Belarus failed to comply in full or in part with six norms of the Convention.
The omissions seem to refer to the procedure employed and not safety or technical issues. In particular, the Belarusian government apparently made the decision to build the plant before carrying out the needed environment impact assessment (EIA) and, as always, ignored the requirements to provide public information in full information about the project and do so in a timely manner. Belarusian state officials delayed or simply ignored additional Lithuanian questions which made the consultations a pure formality.
In reality, the Belarusians had hardly anything from the international Committee or the Lithuanian side. Minsk preferred to ignore not only some Lithuania's requests, but also a letter from the EU and provided the Committee with documents in Russian without a translation into English. At the same time, it manipulated with the EIA texts and held only nominal public hearing with Lithuanian residents.
Isolated from many pan-European projects, the Belarusian state clearly has real problems with educating its bureaucrats on new ways of doing government business, particularly in international context. Projects aimed at training Belarusian public servants would help to overcome this problem. Yet isolating all Belarusian government system – regardless of the involvement of specific organs and persons in carrying out political persecution in Belarus – the West effectively preserves the old system in Belarus. Moreover, this would undermines a future government which would be in charge after the current president leaves.
Astraviec Power Plant, Liberalisation of Business – Belarus State TV Digest
Over the last week, Belarusian state television reported widely on a public discussion on a nuclear power plant in Astraviec. Nearly 200 journalists and activists came from Lithuania to take part in the event. Media covered also a draft bill that will free up business. Among international events, protests in Egypt were widely covered.
Astraviec nuclear power plant: politics and economy behind Lithuanian protests, not environmental concerns. Belarusian TV commented on the public discussion in Astraviec with two hundred Lithuanian journalists and activists who came to the event. They emphasised that the Belarusian side has done a lot to satisfy Vilnius with regard to the planned construction. The media added that even the official documents regarding the nuclear power plant’s ecological compatibility are freely available on the Internet and in the Lithuanian language “for the convenience of our neighbours”. A number of Lithuanian nationals were hoping to work on the Ignalina nuclear power plant, but since it will not be built, they sent their job applications to the Astraviec plant and are ready to work.
Television noted the absence of Lithuanian representatives and diplomats, who spoke about the alleged secrecy of the Belarusian project. The reality of the situation is rather different according to Belarusian television. It emphasised free visas for Lithuanians, and the translation of official documents into Lithuanian, demonstratinb the openness and transparency of the project.
The state media also drew attention to the well-represented segments of the Lithuanian press and activists attending the event. It asked them why Vilnius so vigorously opposed the construction of the first Belarusian power plant. Oleg Davidiuk, from the Lithuania-based centre Kron put it bluntly: “We are jealous of Astraviec.” A journalist from Lithuania, Alexander Ivanov from Litovski Kurier newspaper, argued that “Lithuania is losing the nuclear race”. The state media also focused on this as the real reason why Vilnius is still opposing the Belarusian project.
TV also featured Alexander Lukashenka, who in March lectured about the importance of the project: “our power plant together with the Russian one in Kaliningrad gives more to the EU and the Baltic States. They did not manage to construct their own power plants. (…) They will have to buy both our and Russian energy”. The report concluded that “Astraviec is not an island, but a significant archipelago in a sea of huge, ecologically-minded, safe and still-growing European power engineering”.
Advanced Armed Forces to protect independence of Belarus. Recently Lukashenka chaired a meeting on the development of the Belarusian armed forces. In his words, “In this new reality, our armed forces should be ready to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity”. He also argued that some countries, particularly the Western ones and the NATO bloc, including the US, continue to apply pressure to some “unwelcomed countries”, later explaining that Belarus remained such a state. Lukashenka ordered the Ministry of Defence to carry out and fully realize the agreement with Russia regarding its air force and anti-aircraft warfare.
Liberalisation of business. Lukashenka held a meeting on how a series of legal amendments stimulate business in Belarus. Belarusian state TV emphasised that the authors of a draft bill considered changes that would facilitate business and remove barriers to its further development. The journalists covered a number of tools which could liberalise the business environment; among them, the optimisation of the terms of punishment, to include fines and deposits instead of imprisonment. Lukashenka emphasized that the “interests of our citizens should be the basis of any reforms”.
Uralkali guilty of Belaruskali troubles. TV drew attention to the difficult situation surrounding a Belarusian company producing potash. It commented that a “Russian company ceased to sell its products via the Belarusian company”, which had hindered its position.
Valery Kirpienko, the executive of Belaruskali, explained that “it will not only be we who will suffer from negative consequences, but Uralkali too, and most important of all – our customers”. State television reported that the Belarusian company would take a few steps to become more independent and would have its own port terminals. So far it holds a 30 percent shares in the Lithuanian port terminal in Klaipeda, and is now planning to have one in Brazil also. The company’s management is also considering seeking a market in Africa.
Egypt submerged in bloody protests. Belarusian television reported on the recent bloodshed in Egypt. It showed scenes of violent struggle sweeping the country, and also reached popular resorts. The Belarusian media commented on this, citing “hundreds of victims. The number of deaths over these days is simply incomprehensible”. They also added that the international community had already criticised the events and called upon Egypt to start peace talks.
Belarus praised for its initiative in combating human trafficking. Minsk hosted a five-day seminar on combating human trafficking and slavery. State TV reported that the representative of the United Nations to Minsk praised Belarus and confirmed its further support for Minsk in its activity in the area.
The state channel highlighted that the Belarusian authorities initiated the establishment of a group of countries, now composed of 22 states, which will deal with the problems of human trafficking and other related issues. Minsk proposed combatting the issue on a global scale. The Belarusian media mentioned, however, that worker exploitation of Belarusian nationals in Russia remains a serious problem.
Further, they repeated the words of Lukashenka who in May said, “12-13 years ago we started to deal with the problem of human trafficking very actively in all its forms. We have experience in it. We are proud of this fact”.
The youngest pensioners in the world. Television reported that Belarus, together with Russia and Ukraine, remains the country with the lowest age for retirement. Belarusian men can retire at the age of 60, and women at 55. “In our Western neighbouring countries people need to work for much longer,” it said, and mentioned countries such as Poland, Latvia, but also Germany. The reports stressed that among the EU countries, only France still “maintains these social guarantees”.
No medals, no money. Lukashenka announced that only athletes with high achievements would receive significant funds from the state. State TV stated that, “the state loses a huge amount of money in this sphere and has a right to demand an appropriate output”. He referred to the unsuccessful performance of Belarusian athletes during the recent World Atheletics Championship in Moscow. In Lukashenka’s words, “an athlete will receive a basic salary for high achievements, not for getting 21st or 41st place”. He concluded that “sport, like entrepreneurship, should earn money”.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.