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2020.08.27 17:00

10 questions about Belarusian nuclear plant. What would happen to Lithuania in case of accident?

Vaida Kalinkaitė-Matuliauskienė, LRT.lt2020.08.27 17:00

The Belarusian nuclear plant in Astravyets, just 50 kilometres from Vilnius, is nearing completion. Lithuanian authorities say the plant poses a threat to the people. LRT.lt looks into 10 most pressing questions.

Why does Lithuania say that Astravyets NPP is unsafe?

Lithuania’s State Nuclear Power Safety Inspectorate (VATESI) provides three main arguments as to why the Astravyets NPP is unsafe. Firstly, the location is not suitable for the project. Moreover, the environmental impact assessment set out by the UN’s Espoo convention has not yet been finished.

Secondly, the nuclear power plant in Belarus does not meet modern security requirements. For example, resilience to the impact of a heavy aircraft crash has not been assessed, VATESI said.

The inspectorate also pointed out a low level of security culture. Belarusian and international media reported several incidents at the construction site, which the authorities attempted to deny or cover up.

Read more: Lithuanians stage mock evacuations to train for nuclear accident – photos

What would be the impact of an Astravyets NPP disaster on Lithuania?

The exact impact of an accident at Astravyets NPP on Lithuanians would depend on many factors. In the worst-case scenario, an incident could affect a territory within the 300-kilometre radius from the power plant.

In case of a large-scale disaster, a significant number of Lithuanians could be exposed to harmful doses of radiation, as around a third of the Lithuanian population resides within 100 kilometres from Astravyets NPP, VATESI said.

Others, living up to 300 kilometres from the Belarusian nuclear facility, would face limitations on consuming food and other products in case of an accident.

Such a scenario assumes dominant winds from the east, the inspectorate noted, meaning that radioactive particles would move towards Lithuania. People would be instructed to stay indoors.

The distance from Astravyets NPP is an important factor determining the impact on the population. Those residing within 30 kilometres from the facility would have to be evacuated and given iodine treatment.

Read more: Lithuania hands out iodine pills ahead of Astravyets NPP launch

Within the extended distance of 100 kilometres from the nuclear plant, which includes the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, iodine treatment could be given to the population after the assessment of the radiological situation. If necessary, people might also have to be evacuated.

In locations 300 kilometres from Astravyets NPP, the long-term radioactive pollution would have to be evaluated in food, drinking water, fodder, and the environment, including soil, roads, and buildings. If necessary, the area could be decontaminated, while the food and water pollution would have to be monitored over time.

“It is important to note that Astravyets NPP is located only 40 kilometres from Vilnius, where the major government institutions, responsible for assuring security measures, are based. An accident in the Belarussian nuclear plant could hinder the operation of these institutions,” VATESI added.

Read more: Lithuania to spend €135m to prepare for accidents at Belarus NPP

What could be the impact of Astravyets NPP disaster on the river Neris?

The operators of the nuclear plant plan to use the water from the river Neris to cool the reactors. According to Lithuania’s Geological Service, the Neris provides drinking water to Vilnius, Jonava in central Lithuania, and partly Kaunas, the second-largest city in the country.

“The intentions to use the Neris water to cool down Astravyets NPP reactors put these [four systems] under threat. These sources provide 65,000 cubic metres of drinking water, constituting 73 percent of all drinking water supplied in Vilnius,” the geologists noted.

The service also said that the Antaviliai supply system that provides water for more than half of Vilnius’ population would be among the most threatened facilities.

“The water sources of this system are closest to the Belarusian border […]. Any pollution flowing from Astravyets NPP to the Neris could reach the system within 10 to 12 hours,” the service said.

According to the geologists, the sources used for water extraction could be contaminated within nine days in Jonava, 14 days in Vilnius, and 21–25 days in Kaunas.

“Preliminary estimates show that radioactive pollution of the Neris is dangerous for water supply in Vilnius, Kaunas, and Jonava,” she said. Therefore, it is necessary to model the exact consequences and prepare an action plan, according to the service.

Could Astravyets NPP be damaged by an earthquake?

The Astravyets NPP construction site is located in a seismically active territory, where earthquakes had been recorded over the past few centuries.

The Lithuanian geological service told LRT.lt that earthquakes were impossible to predict, especially in the areas with low seismic activity, such as in Belarus.

“We can only find locations and regions where earthquakes could probably take place, that is, to identify territories with higher seismotectonic activity,” the geologists said.

Modern technologies are not yet capable of accurately predicting upcoming earthquakes, they said. At the moment, geologists can only analyse the time between earthquakes in the past and make predictions about future events.

Judging by past occurrences, an earthquake could strike in any location around the Astravyets NPP site, as well as directly under the nuclear facility itself, according to the service.

How is radiation measured?

According to Lithuania’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the level of radiation in the country is being continuously monitored by 43 air stations and three water stations.

A station in Buivydžiai on the Lithuanian–Belarusian border conducts continuous radiation tests of the Neris water.

Out of 43 radiation stations in Lithuania, 14 are located on the border with Belarus to monitor possible effects of Astravyets NPP.

“The number of stations is sufficient to capture even the smallest increase in radiation. The measurements are sent to a database every ten minutes and posted on EPA and European Commission’s EURDEO websites,” EPA told LRT.lt.

Read more: Worried of Belarus nuclear plant, Lithuania ups monitoring measures

According to the agency, when radiation reaches a dangerous level, responsible services receive SMS and email notifications. Messages are also sent when a failure in the system or an unauthorised opening of the station occurs.

“In July, two new stations aimed at assessing the impact of Astravyets NPP started operating in Utena and Dzūkija National Park,” EPA added. “These stations continuously measure the level of radiation by pumping large amounts of air through special filters that are then analysed in a laboratory.”

The agency assured that such a method allows for even the smallest radiation increases to be recorded and notified about.

What are stress tests and what do they measure?

Stress tests, as explained by VATESI, were initiated by the European Union after the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi NPP in Japan.

These tests assess additional risks caused by nuclear facilities, as well as evaluate their security based on likely unfavourable conditions.

“The operation of NPPs requires a license. But the criteria for issuing licences to older NPPs are no longer sufficient for modern practices, given the experience of nuclear disasters,” said VATESI.

The goal of stress tests is to evaluate the NPP’s readiness to withstand conditions worse than those considered when licencing other power plants. The nuclear facility must pass these tests even if the likelihood of certain conditions occuring is very low.

The stress tests set out by the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) include assessments in three areas: resilience to rare but large-scale external events, loss of safety functions, and management of major accidents.

Read more: Kremlin may threaten nuclear incidents in Belarus to blackmail Lithuania – MP

VATESI added that the tests included not only technical requirements, but also transparency rules. All interested parties can express their concerns, while the results of the tests must be released.

The European stress test initiative was later joined by some non-EU countries, including Belarus. Under pressure from Lithuania, the latter released the national report of Astravyets NPP’s stress test results.

According to VATESI, the report was evaluated by a group of European experts. They raised 464 questions about the Belarusian report, named the shortcomings of Astravyets NPP, and provided 30 recommendations on how to eliminate them.

“Belarus has only partially responded to the recommendations. It does not intend to resolve the problems identified by the experts before the launch of the first Astravyets NPP reactor,” VATESI said.

Despite the importance of the safety improvements, they will only be implemented between 2021 and 2024, well after the launch of the first reactor in 2020, said the inspectorate.

“The Belarusian national action plan is currently being evaluated by the ENSREG’s experts. The evaluation is to be finished by the end of 2020,” VATESI added.

What if the Baltic states cannot reach an agreement to block imports of Astravyets NPP’s electricity?

According to the Lithuanian Energy Ministry, negotiations on the Baltic states’ joint political declaration are ongoing. Lithuania expects to reach an agreement on limiting the imports of electricity from third countries, including Belarus. The negotiations are being mediated by the European Commission.

Read more: Estonia criticises Lithuania's position on Belarus nuclear imports – 'worst time to show our differences'

“It is important to note that after the synchronisation of the Baltic power grids with continental Europe's, there will be no infrastructure left suitable for the electricity trade with third countries, including Russia and Belarus. The Baltic electricity systems will be disconnected from the Russia-controlled BRELL network” that includes Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the ministry said.

The power grids’ synchronisation with continental Europe is expected to be finished by 2025.

“In the absence of a tripartite agreement on the allocation and calculation of permeability between the transmission system operators of the three Baltic states, the permeability would be allocated and calculated on the national basis. The consequence would be a greater threat to the reliability of the electricity transmission systems,” the ministry said.

Poland has also previously announced that it does not intend to buy electricity from Astravyets NPP. A similar position has also been confirmed by the Ukrainian government representatives in a recent call with the Lithuanian energy minister.

What if other states do not buy electricity produced at Astravyets NPP?

It is hard to guess whether Belarus would still profit from its nuclear project if only Latvia out of the three Baltic states decided to purchase electricity produced at Astravyets NPP, the energy ministry said.

“It is important to note that the limitations on entering the Lithuanian market will have real economic consequences for the Astravyets NPP project,” the ministry said. “Belarus expected to export electricity to the Baltic and European market directly through Lithuania. But this option is no longer available.”

Another, less direct way would be to export electricity to Latvia via Russia, the ministry added.

“The negotiations between the Baltic states are ongoing. It causes serious doubts about the economic viability of this project, as well as questions about stopping the facility in the future. There are many NPPs in the world that were closed due to economic and political reasons,” according to the Energy Ministry.

The ministry also noted that the price of renewable energy is falling significantly, making nuclear energy less competitive.

In 2019, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report found that solar power costs 36-44 dollars for MWh, wind power 29-56 dollars for MWh, while nuclear power 112-189 dollars for MWh.

On August 25, Latvia also said it would not buy electricity from Belarus once it launches the nuclear plant. However, it is still considering purchasing electricity from Russia, which could leave a theoretical possibility for Belarusian electricity to enter the Baltic states’ common energy market via Moscow.

Read more: Latvia backs Lithuania in nuclear dispute with Belarus after months of negotiations

What does the physical launch of Astravyets NPP mean?

According to VATESI, there are three stages of launching a nuclear power plant: physical, energy production, and industrial or commercial supply.

The physical launch means loading nuclear fuel into the reactor and beginning nuclear fission for the first time. At this stage, which could last for around two months, the equipment gets tested and the physical characteristics of the reactor analysed.

During the energy production stage, the electric generator is turned on and the reactor’s power is being gradually increased. This stage could last for two to four months.

After demonstrating that the reactor can operate stably, the industrial and commercial stage begins.

Based on public information, the physical launch of the first Astravyets NPP reactor is planned for August this year, while the commercial operation is expected to start in the first quarter of 2021. The second reactor should be fully launched by the end of 2021.

Read more: Belarus informs Lithuania about fuel delivery to Astravyets nuclear plant

What is the difference between Astravyets and Ignalina NPPs?

According to Lithuania’s State Nuclear Power Safety Inspectorate (VATESI), the nuclear facilities in Ignalina, eastern Lithuania, and Astravyets differ in technology.

The reactors of Ignalina NPP are of so-called channel type made of graphite flooring with management and technological channels, through which boiling water circulates.

Meanwhile, the main component of the reactors at Astravyets NPP use hot but not boiling water flows.

“Nowhere in the world, except for the Soviet Union, were reactors analogous to Ignalina NPP used. However, VVER (Water-Water Energetic Reactors) at the Astravyes NPP are analogous to Pressured Water Reactors (PWR) and constitute more than half of all nuclear reactors in the world,” VATESI said in a comment to LRT.lt.

The inspectorate noted that VVER reactors of AES-2006 modification are safer than the previous models, but they still do not meet European safety standards.

“This was demonstrated by the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority’s (STUK) early assessment of the project,” said VATESI. Russian state atomic agency Rosatom is building the nuclear plant in Belarus and is also trying to build one in Finland. But as of 2020, it still failed to get safety clearances from the Finnish regulator.

According to VATESI, Ignalina and Astravyets NPPs were constructed in different time periods and under different security requirements, “therefore, a direct comparison of their security levels would not be correct”.

Lithuania’s Ignalina NPP is currently undergoing decommissioning, due to be completed in 2038.

Read more: Lithuania fears Belarus hasn't ‘learned lessons of Chernobyl’