As Belarus is making preparations to launch its new nuclear power plant before the end of 2019, Lithuania plans evacuation exercises and distributing iodine pills. People near the border with Belarus say would not know what to do in case of a nuclear meltdown.
Kalveliai, a village of 1,600 people in south-east Lithuania, lies by the Belarusian border and just 30 kilometres from Astravyets, the site of a newly-built nuclear plant.
Lithuania has been fiercely protesting the Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant, constructed within 50 kilometres from its capital and most populous city, but to no avail. The first reactor in Belarus is due to become operational in October.
People in Kalveliai say they could see the plant if it weren't for the forest. In case of a nuclear accident, they would be among the first ones to be evacuated from their homes.
However, some are leaving the village already. One Kalveliai resident, who didn't give her name, tells LRT TV that five of her acquaintances have moved out.
“People are leaving here, I have acquaintances that are buying flats and houses elsewhere, because of the Astravyets Nuclear Plant,” the woman says.
The sense of danger is not universally shared, however. “It is overblown, I don't think it's true,” Oksana, another resident of Kalveliai, tells LRT TV.
Most say, though, that they would not know what to do in case of a nuclear accident in Astravyets and expect the state to take care of them.
There is only one person in the Vilnius District Administration in charge of civil safety. The amount of work has noticeably increased for him, says Tadeuš Černiavskij: “With the nuclear power plant, I have to review crisis plans, analyses, everything.”
Virgilijus Poderys, the chairman of the Energy Commission in the Lithuanian parliament, Seimas, says the state of preparation for the Astravyets NPP is unacceptable. Different institutions do not coordinate their work, he says, and there must be more effort to inform the population.
“I am not convinced that all the agencies, and they are many, have coordinated their practical actions,” Poderys says. “Are people prepared, do they know, are they informed? The common response from our institutions that they should go and read up on the internet – that I personally find completely unsatisfactory.”
Vilnius city authorities plan to install radiation-monitoring equipment near the River Neris on the Lithuanian border, "which was supposed to be installed by one of the ministries [after they failed to agreed on which one]," director of administration at Vilnius municipality, Povilas Poderskis, told a council meeting last week.
Public safety experts assure that, in case of an accident in Astravyets, the population in Lithuania would be informed within an hour through three channels: phone alerts, radio and TV, and sirens.
However, only about half of Lithuanians are within the earshot of emergency sirens, roughly as many would receive phone alerts.
Černiavskij, the civic safety specialist for Vilnius District, says that church bells would also be used to sound the alarm.
However, response in reality usually falls short of drawn-up emergency plans, says Edgaras Geda of Lithuania's Fire and Rescue Department, therefore trainings are needed.
“What you plan for hours, in reality happens over days, which is what we saw in Ukraine and Japan,” Geda tells LRT TV. “So we are actively planning and preparing for a large-scale exercise on October 1-4, where we will evacuate 200 people, to see how long it takes and make further provisions.”
October is also when Belarus is planning to bring the first reactor of the nuclear plant online. Before that happens, the Lithuanian Health Ministry promises to distribute iodine pills to people living within a hundred-kilometre radius from the facility.
The ministry plans to spend a million euros on four million tablets to be given to family doctors and municipal authorities.
Algirdas Šešelgis, vice-minister of health, says the finance for the programme is still pending, but once it is approved, the pills should reach people within a couple of months. Pharmacies throughout the country are encourage to stock up iodine, too.