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2020.09.15 08:00

How Lithuania fought and failed to stop Belarusian nuclear project

Vaida Kalinkaitė-Matuliauskienė, LRT.lt2020.09.15 08:00

In 2008, Belarus announced its intentions to build a nuclear power plant, some 50 kilometres from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. But even in 2010, Lithuanian politicians were sceptical that the facility would be built.

“I had an opportunity to cross Belarus by bike and visit the construction site of the Astravyets NPP during my summer vacation,” said former Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius in his interview with LRT RADIO in 2010. “I have to admit that I was not convinced of the plans to build a nuclear facility there.”

“To my knowledge, the financing [of the project] is not yet finalised. The scale of construction that I’ve seen seemed to be in a very early stage,” he added.

But the agreement was reached in 2011 when Belarus signed a nuclear plant construction contract with Atomstroieksport, controlled by the Russian state atomic corporation Rosatom.

The building works started in 2013. Two years later, Lithuania began raising the question of Astravyets NPP on the international level and decided to boycott electricity produced by it.

“We are not planning to adjust any infrastructure for this nuclear facility and we are not planning to buy electricity from it,” said the former Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius at the Lithuanian parliament, Seimas.

In 2017, the Seimas passed a law saying that the Astravyets NPP is a threat to the Lithuanian national security because of its proximity to the country.

The incidents at the nuclear plant’s construction site were pointed out, along with the fact that Belarus did not want it to be inspected by international experts.

The Astravyets NPP's location was also found to be on seismically active territory, where dozens of earthquakes had been recorded over the past few centuries.

Lithuanians would be left without water

In case of an accident at the Astravyets NPP, many Lithuanians would not only be affected by radiation, but would also be left waterless.

The plant’s operators plan to use water from the river Neris for reactor cooling. The river is also a source of drinking water for Vilnius and other cities in Lithuania. In the country’s capital, 80 percent of water supply comes from Neris. It means that an accident would leave a significant portion of Lithuanians without access to running water because of pollution.

Lithuania also said that Minsk withheld full information or outright denied the incidents at the Astravyets NPP.

In the 2017 Aarhus Conference, Belarus was found to have violated the convention that protects the public right to information and participation in decision-making regarding environmental protection.

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

In 2018, the Baltic states and Poland signed an agreement to synchronise their power grids with continental Europe's, which would allow Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to disconnect from the Russia-controlled BRELL network.

A few days later, the European Commission announced that the Astravyets NPP had passed the stress test requirements, determined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The stress tests, assessed by the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG), sought to evaluate outside risks to the nuclear plant and the facility’s ability to withstand them. They also sought to determine the shortcomings of the Astravyets NPP and provide recommendations for seismic security and accident control.

But the tests did not address the questions that Lithuania had been raising since the project's inception. These include the evaluation of the site’s suitability for the construction of the nuclear facility, international assessment of its environmental effects and job security.

The stress tests were conducted by the secondary company of Rosatom, the Russian state company constructing the facility.

From NPP to gas-fired power plant

In October 2018, prompted by the situation in Belarus, Lithuania decided to ban imports of electricity from third countries with unsafe nuclear power plants.

In February 2019, the UN meeting for assessing international environmental effects determined that Belarus had violated several articles of the convention.

A month later, the Lithuanian government’s press release said that the Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis called on his Belarusian counterpart Sergei Rumas to build a modern gas-fired power plant instead of a nuclear facility.

“We are neighbouring countries, we communicate and cooperate on many issues, therefore, I strongly hope that this question will be resolved according to the spirit of good neighbourhood and mutual benefit,” Skvernelis wrote in his letter to Rumas.

“While we respect every state’s right to choose the direction of its economic development, we cannot hide our sincere disappointment at neighbouring Belarus’ decision to develop the nuclear plant less than 50 kilometres from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius,” he added.

Skvernelis said that Lithuanian would help Belarus with gas imports from and via Lithuania if it decided to develop a modern gas-fired power plant instead.

In April, Belarus rejected the offer, saying in a response letter to Skvernelis that the Astravyets NPP project was already at the finishing stage and turning it into a gas facility would be “technically and economically pointless”.

Later, Minsk offered Lithuania to develop a common system for observing the operation of the nuclear facility in Astravyets. Initially, Skvernelis accepted this proposal.

“We will simply have an opportunity to observe the background radiation, possible incidents, and the entire environment from Lithuania,” said the prime minister.

But other ministers and experts were against the proposal because they said it would mean that Lithuania would have to take responsibility without being granted any direct say in the running of the Astravyets NPP.

Former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė also said that Lithuania should seek for the nuclear facility in Belarus to be shut down instead of developing a common system that would legitimise the plant.

“Any agreement to participate and create shared institutions would lead to the legitimisation of the Astravyets nuclear power plant. It would mean that we tie our hands and cannot demand the facility to be closed down,” Grybauskaitė told reporters.

Skvernelis then clarified that the common system would be considered only if and when the nuclear plant in Belarus were launched.

The Baltic states’ disagreement

The difficulties were also caused by the Baltic states’ disagreement over their positions on the Astravyets NPP.

In February 2020, Lithuanian and Estonian ministers signed a joint political declaration.

Latvia, however, postponed its decision on whether to accept the common Baltic position over the imports of electricity from the new Belarusian nuclear plant.

While the three Baltic states were negotiating, the Astravyets NPP got permission from the Department of Nuclear and Radiation Safety of the Belarusian Ministry for Emergency Situations (Gosatomnadzor) to start loading nuclear fuel into its first reactor.

The fuel reached Astravyets on May 6, 2020. On the same day, Lithuania sent a note to Belarus and encouraged it to prioritise security and not to speed up the construction of the nuclear facility, arguing that it put people in Belarus as well as in surrounding countries at risk.

In early June 2020, a new common position declaration proposal said that Latvia and Estonia were not obliged to boycott Astravyets’ electricity, but could not oppose Lithuania’s decision to do so.

The proposed solution caused disagreement among Lithuania’s politicians. The Foreign Ministry said that the declaration would mean Lithuania’s capitulation. The Energy Ministry, however, believed that Lithuania’s interests could be protected better if the agreement was reached.

In response to the failed negotiations over the purchase of Astravyets energy, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda decided not to participate in the annual meeting of the Baltic states’ leaders.

“The meeting of the leaders of the Baltic states has been long planned for […]. The agenda included questions of energy security and the boycott of electricity from the unsafe Astravyets NPP,” the president’s office said in its comment to LRT.lt.

“The Energy and Economy Ministers failed to reach an agreement regarding the renewed energy trade with third countries. The president thinks that the negotiations should be finished and decisions made before the meetings at the highest level could take place.”

In the end, Latvia relented – citing the ongoing violent crackdown on protesters in Belarus – and said it would join the Baltic boycott. However, critics have previously pointed out that electricity from Astravyets may simply enter the Baltics via Russia, as Latvia said it would continue energy trade with Moscow until the grid desynchronisation in 2025.

Meanwhile, the first reactor of Astravyets NPP should be fully operational by the first quarter of 2021.

Read more: Minsk to export nuclear energy to other markets due to Baltic boycott