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2021.03.28 10:00

Nuclear quagmire facing the Baltics. Severing the last Soviet ties

Tomas Janeliūnas2021.03.28 10:00

The nuclear power plant in Belarus has created a political quagmire in the Baltic states. Writing for Estonia’s International Centre for Defence and Security, Tomas Janeliūnas untangles the threads.

On November 3, 2020, Belarus started testing the Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant (Astravyets NPP), and since December it has been conducting tests for industrial use. In the process, the electricity produced by the Astravyets NPP also entered the electricity system of the Baltic states, as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia still belong to the same electricity system as Belarus and parts of Russia.

The Astravyets NPP, which is located just 50 km from Vilnius, is of great concern to the Lithuanian public and government due to major safety issues that remain unaddressed by the authorities of Belarus and the plant’s operator, the Russian state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom.

The start of operation of the Astravyets NPP has caused many tensions between the Baltic states, as no unanimous agreement has been reached thus far to block the import of electricity from Belarus.

The Astravyets NPP and its boycott

Lithuania has long opposed the development of this nuclear power plant and proposed boycotting electricity imports from Belarus from the moment the Astravyets NPP became operational.

On April 20, 2017, the parliament of Lithuania (Seimas) outlawed electricity trade in Astravyets’ electricity.

The main reason for the boycott is the Lithuanian authorities’ conviction that the Astravyets NPP was built in violation of essential safety requirements and does not comply with international obligations regarding the development of civil nuclear energy.

Although Lithuania’s political efforts to stop the project have failed and the first Astravyets NPP reactor has become operational, the electricity boycott still has an economic rationale: Lithuania hopes that if Belarus fails to export electricity to the Baltic countries, it will abandon plans to build the second Astravyets NPP reactor.

However, stopping Belarusian electricity from entering the Baltic electricity market requires a common solution among Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian electricity transmission system operators (TSOs).

The Baltic states’ transmission grid is still a part of the Integrated Power System/Unified Power System (IPS/UPS) operating in what is known as the “BRELL ring” (which includes the transmission systems of Belarus, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania).

Physical flows of electricity among Belarus, Russia and the Baltic states are to be maintained until the end of 2025, when the synchronisation of the Baltic grids with the Continental European Network (CEN) via Poland should be finalised.

The Baltic states have not found a common solution by which to boycott the commercial trade of Belarussian electricity, as Latvia prefers keeping open the option of trade with Russia. This option would, in essence, allow Belarusian electricity to enter the Baltic electricity market, as there is little or no possibility of separating Belarusian electricity from Russian electricity in the BRELL ring.

The technical conditions to trade electricity with third countries (ie Russia) have to be set in a common document of the Baltic TSOs – The Terms, Conditions and Methodology on Cross-Zonal Capacity Calculation, Provision and Allocation with Russia (hereinafter, the Methodology) – but the Lithuanian side refused to approve the latest version of the Methodology. Accordingly, the Baltic states currently do not have a common position on how to ensure that Belarusian electricity is not traded on the Baltic electricity markets.

Lithuania’s perception of the threat

Lithuanian politicians saw the Astravyets NPP as a threat to national security long before the power plant became operational. In 2017, the Lithuanian National Security Strategy mentioned it among the most important threats, dangers and risk factors.

The Astravyets NPP threat discourse was more often noticeable in the rhetoric of the right and centre-right politicians from the conservative Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats and the Liberal Movement, who often criticised government officials or the then-President Dalia Grybauskaitė for doing too little to stop a dangerous project.

On the other hand, the representatives of the leftwing parties did not shy away from criticising the former conservative Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, who was convinced back in 2009–10 that the Astravyets NPP would probably be suspended, just as the Russia-initiated Baltic NPP project in the Kaliningrad exclave had been.

At the beginning of 2020, the non-governmental movement against the Astravyets NPP was established in Vilnius. Most of the founders of the organisation were representatives of the conservative and liberal parties.

Some prominent public figures – including the first head of the restored Lithuanian state, professor Vytautas Landsbergis; former head of the State Security Department Mečys Laurinkus; and former minister of foreign affairs Petras Vaitiekūnas – also joined the movement.

The anti-Astravyets movement was very active in criticising the Lithuanian government – and especially Minister of Energy Žygimantas Vaičiūnas – by declaring that Lithuania did not sufficiently protect its national interests and was unable to conclude a firm agreement with Latvia and Estonia on the Belarusian electricity boycott.

Positions differed even within the government, with foreign affairs and defence ministers also proposing to oppose the agreement made by the energy minister. President Gitanas Nausėda, who took office in 2019, asked then-Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis to form a common position within the government as soon as possible, as differences of opinion prevented Lithuania from defending its interests in the most effective way.

Lithuanian society was also affected by the threat discourse surrounding the Astravyets NPP.

A public opinion survey conducted in the autumn of 2018 revealed that 65.5 percent of respondents considered the ongoing Astravyets NPP project to be a threat to the country’s security.

The most recent public opinion survey, carried out in September 2020, showed that about 58 percent of respondents thought the Astravyets NPP posed a threat – the issue was named among the four most urgent potential threats (together with a potential economic crisis, the rising prices of goods and services, and the rising price of food).

Concerns about security risks have intensified in Lithuania with the launch of operation tests of the Astravyets NPP in autumn 2020. There were reports of at least two incidents during the tests: on 8 November, the turbine at the plant’s first unit was shut down due to the failure of voltage transformers. On 30 November, Ecohome, a prominent environmental NGO in Belarus, reported that another incident took place earlier at the plant, when a tank of the emergency cooling system of the first reactor was damaged.

There is no doubt that the Astravyets NPP and the safety risks associated with the project will be included in the updated National Security Strategy of Lithuania.

In the first public hearings organised by the Committee of National Security and Defence of the Seimas, the threat posed by the Astravyets NPP was mentioned as one of the top risks currently facing Lithuania.

However, even some Lithuanian energy experts questioned whether Lithuania could prevent the full access of Belarusian commercial electricity to the Baltic market, as tracing the origin of electricity could be difficult.

On the other hand, Lithuania has no legal powers to completely prevent, for instance, Latvia from importing electricity from Russia. Rytas Staselis, a Lithuanian energy expert, stated that the cost of electricity produced by the Astravyets NPP could be almost twice as high as the normal price of electricity in the Baltic market due to the high investment costs in Belarus.

However, it is understood that the authoritarian regime does not follow the logic of the free market and Belarus needs to trade in electricity in any case, which could lead to significant price dumping when entering the Baltic markets.

Political actions and decisions

The national law mentioned earlier and other decisions were conceived to prevent the trading of Astravyets NPP electricity in Lithuania. However, national decisions alone cannot change the rules for electricity trade that apply to the whole region, which is part of an integrated electricity market operated by Nord Pool.

The country’s authorities have taken a number of steps so that the Astravyets NPP is recognised internationally as an unsafe power plant. However, international organisations monitoring civil nuclear energy do not have the means to ban the construction of nuclear power plants. They can only make recommendations or identify some violations of international obligations but not impose serious sanctions. The following section is an overview of the measures taken by Lithuania in trying to halt the Astravyets NPP project.

National level

In September 2017, the government of Lithuania adopted the action plan to “protect against the unsafe nuclear power plant” in Belarus. This document set out the objectives of accelerating the implementation of the synchronisation of electricity networks with continental Europe.

The intention to seek a regional political agreement with the Baltic states, Poland, and Finland on blocking Belarusian electricity from the Baltic electricity market was also included.

As the start-up time for the Astravyets NPP approached, the measures taken at the local level to prepare for emergencies in the event of an accident at the plant intensified.

At the end of 2019, Lithuania received more than 4,000,000 potassium iodine tablets to be distributed to residents in case of a nuclear accident.

On July 16, 2020, the State Defence Council – the highest national institution dealing with security issues of the utmost importance – was convened by the president to discuss preparation processes before the launch of the Astravyets NPP.

Later, the then-Minister of Interior Rita Tamašunienė revealed that the Lithuanian government planned to invest almost €140 million in disaster preparedness related to the Astravyets NPP over the next few years.

However, it was acknowledged that preparation for possible incidents had been delayed. For example, plans to completely update the model of the civil protection system were to be implemented only by 2023.13 This model envisaged the establishment of a national civil protection centre to shorten the decision-making chain in emergency situations; ensuring the necessary material resources of the state reserve and their efficient use; and modernising the public emergency warning and information system.

In the event of an Astravyets NPP accident, large-scale measures were to be implemented, including the provision of food, medicine and unpolluted drinking water to the population (the Astravyets NPP is cooled by water from the Neris River, which is the main water source in Vilnius) and the potential evacuation of the population – more than 500,000 people. In 2019–20, several civil emergency exercises took place in Lithuania that revealed the problems of coordination between different institutions

Regional and international level

Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry has constantly tried to raise the issue of security of the Astravyets NPP in international institutions, arguing that the Astravyets NPP project was not in compliance with international standards of environmental and nuclear safety: there were serious and recurring violations of such standards, repeated safety incidents on the construction site, poor occupational safety culture, and lack of competence and expertise in the project development process.

As stated in the official document, Fundamental Problems of the Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant under Construction in Belarus, the project was accompanied by persistent manipulations of international instruments and public opinion in Belarus and neighbouring countries, and the Astravyets NPP is essentially a geopolitical project devoid of economic logic.

However, diplomatic victories at the international level have been few and rather insignificant.

In July 2018, the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group endorsed a peer review report on the Astravyets NPP’s risk and safety assessment (stress tests). The report identified serious flaws in the project and offered recommendations, particularly in the areas of seismic safety assessment, improvement of safety functions and management of severe accidents.

On 7 February 2019, the Meeting of the Parties to the Espoo Convention in Geneva decided that Belarus had violated the Espoo Convention by choosing the location that it did for its nuclear power plant.

According to Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, on September 16, 2019, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Marowiecki, during a visit to Lithuania, confirmed that Poland had no intentions to purchase electricity generated at the Astravyets NPP.

On December 11, 2020, the Parties to the Espoo Convention reaffirmed that Belarus had failed to comply with the provisions of the Convention in developing the Astravyets NPP project and required Belarus to implement the Convention properly in the future.

In summer 2020, Lithuania also notified the other parties of the BRELL ring that it would be withdrawing from a particular arrangement, the Normative Emergency Reserve Agreement, whereby parties are obliged to provide up to a certain fixed amount of emergency power reserves to each other in case of emergencies in national grids.

This was done following the provisions of the national law and chiefly to ensure that Belarus would be unable to draw upon the power generation capacity of the Kruonis pumped storage hydroelectricity power station in Lithuania – originally constructed to support the stable operations of the Soviet-built and now decommissioned Ignalina NPP in Lithuania and therefore well-suited to support the Astravyets NPP operations if required by the Belarusian TSO.

Thus, from the beginning of 2021, Lithuania stopped providing 100MW of power reserves to other BRELL countries and would itself not be able to draw on 400MW of such reserves from other BRELL parties – a shortfall that the Lithuanian TSO said would be compensated via arrangements with Sweden and Poland. The country also plans to install, by the first half of 2022, a system of energy storage (batteries) with a capacity of 200 MW to ensure the initial reserve.

The most politically salient efforts (and, in Lithuania, the most criticised domestically) in 2020 were Lithuania’s negotiations to reach a technical agreement with Latvia and Estonia on a methodology defining the conditions for electricity trade with non-EU countries.

Back in 2018, on December 13, the aforementioned Methodology was signed by the Baltic TSOs.

In this Methodology, an agreement was set that the import of electricity from the third countries (Belarus and the Russian region of Kaliningrad) should be carried out via Lithuania-Belarus and Lithuania-Kaliningrad electricity connections.

The Methodology included a provision that it would become ineffective when the Astravyets NPP became operational.

In August 2019, the Latvian government commissioned the national TSO to develop a new trade methodology that would open the Latvian-Russian border to electricity trade flows.

Lithuanians interpreted this as a disruption of Baltic unity and of their common policy regarding electricity trade with third countries, as this would create opportunities for indirect trade in Belarusian electricity in Lithuania, through transactions of Russian and Latvian suppliers.

The European Commission was also displeased with the prospect of a bilateral electricity trade methodology suggested by Latvians (ie, only between Estonia and Latvia regarding the trade with Russia/Belarus on the Latvian border with Russia, leaving Lithuania aside) and even threatened unofficially to withdraw support for the synchronisation project (the second stage of it) if the three Baltic states could not find a common solution.

On February 14, 2020, the ministers of the Baltic states responsible for energy prepared a political declaration on a common arrangement for electricity trade with third countries, which included the notion that the Baltic states would not import electricity from Belarus after the Astravyets NPP became operational.

However, the Latvian side refused to sign the declaration, and the Latvian minister was removed soon after that. Negotiations stalled until May 2020.

At the end of May 2020, a new declaration was drafted to be signed by all three ministers on June 5. This draft political declaration did not oblige Estonia and Latvia to avoid importing Belarusian electricity but included several provisions that could ensure that Lithuania was not buying Belarusian electricity through the common market:

– The total trading capacities with third countries should be reduced by the amount of the capacity of the BelarusLithuania cross-border interconnection, thus discontinuing the current trade regime between Lithuania and Belarus.

– A network usage fee for all electricity imports from third countries (including borders with the Kaliningrad exclave) was proposed. Such a fee was intended to increase the general costs of imported electricity from third countries (thus diminishing the attractiveness of imports).

– It was foreseen that electricity imports from the third countries would enter the Baltic states accompanied by the certificates of origin. Such an arrangement is supposed to make it possible to identify the source of imported electricity; this would allow Lithuania to implement its decisions based on the national law boycotting Belarusian electricity.

– After 2025, no trade with third countries should continue.

The anti-Astravyets movement and some representatives from the Lithuanian conservative and liberal parties, who were in parliamentary opposition at that time, raised some public discontent with the draft of the political declaration, claiming that the energy minister was betraying the national interests of Lithuania and should be dismissed. The Lithuanian government postponed the signing of the trilateral Baltic political declaration and obliged its minister to continue negotiations for better terms.

However, no conditions or criteria were publicly articulated as to what would constitute a better agreement. It can only be surmised that Lithuania sought to abandon all trade with third countries via the Latvia-Russia connection or to agree on the same actual throughput as it was before the launch of the Astravyets NPP between Lithuania and Belarus. On the other hand, it was Latvia’s interest in having the possibility of trading electricity with Russia (and re-selling it to Lithuania) that prevented reaching a general agreement.

Baltic (dis)unity

The Lithuanian president, Gitanas Nausėda, did not attend the traditional annual meeting of the Baltic leaders hosted by Estonia on June 25, 2020. This gesture was regarded in the Lithuanian media as a sign of political discontent with the lack of understanding among three Baltic states.

However, the representatives of Latvia and Estonia made no public comment on this step. The Estonian presidential office said merely that the Lithuanian president “made a last-minute decision to stay home due to internal matters”.24 Shortly afterwards, on June 29, Lithuania turned to the European Commission president,

Ursula von der Leyen, and asked her to act as an intermediary in the Baltic negotiations.25 The increased pressure on the EU institutions has had some effect. The European Council included a statement in its conclusions of December 11, 2020: “The European Council underlines the importance of ensuring nuclear safety of the Belarusian nuclear power plant Ostrovets and invites the Commission to investigate possible measures preventing commercial electricity imports from third countries’ nuclear facilities that do not fulfil EU recognised safety levels”.

On August 25, 2020, Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš stated that his government had decided that Latvia would not buy Belarusian electricity if and when the controversial Astravyets NPP became operational.

However, the Latvian PM confirmed that Latvia was still planning to open electricity trading through its connection with Russia, and the issue of preventing the inflow of electricity produced in Belarus through a connection with Russia had yet to be resolved.

Latvia’s main argument was that it needed to have the right to ensure sufficient electricity imports from third countries, as the Baltic market had a shortage of electricity and faced higher prices without such imports.

The three Baltic TSOs submitted their final project of Methodology for approval to the national energy market regulators of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at the end of September 2020.

On November 17, the Lithuanian National Energy Regulatory Council concluded that “the prepared Methodology does not prevent the possibility to trade electricity generated in Belarus and this would be done by using Lithuania’s energy infrastructure” and that “the current situation reveals that the TSOs of Latvia and Estonia are already applying the new Methodology, though it is not approved by the energy regulator of Lithuania (The Lithuanian TSO, Litgrid, is currently working in accordance with the methodology approved in 2018)”.

This situation means that the three Baltic states still do not have a common agreement regarding electricity trade with third countries (at the time this analysis was written), and it is still possible for electricity produced at the Astravyets NPP to be traded in the Baltic electricity market.

Indeed, the new Lithuanian Minister of Energy Dainius Kreivys recently sought to persuade his Latvian counterpart that, according to the data of Litgrid, Belarusian electricity was reaching Lithuanian consumers via Latvia even after the launch of the Astravyets NPP. Latvians remained unconvinced and suggested that the Lithuanian side was referring to physical flows (which are impossible to sever due to the BRELL ring’s continued existence) as opposed to commercial flows.

A potential for compromise?

Ever since a new government was formed in Lithuania by a three-party coalition of conservatives and liberals in December 2020, a stricter political stance towards negotiations with Latvia and Estonia has been widely expected. As the new energy minister hinted, Lithuania should make more of an effort to include Poland and the European Commission in the negotiation process and thus strengthen Lithuania’s arguments when speaking with Latvia and Estonia.

It is possible that the Lithuanian government will draft amendments to the national legislation to further restrict foreign companies trading Belarusian electricity from participating in the Lithuanian energy market. The new Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė has already expressed her concern that the situation may put Baltic synchronisation with the CEN at risk and stated that “a kind of desynchronisation took place as western, European [electricity] flows have been partly replaced by the electricity from the Belarusian NPP. This does not correspond with the interests of Lithuania or the European Union.”

Perhaps the most likely compromise, which would leave open the possibility of trading in Russian electricity but reduce the likelihood of Belarusian imports, would be a changed (reduced) volume of electricity that would be imposed on trade with Russia in the common Baltic methodology. According to the Lithuanian energy market regulator and some energy experts, the current version of the Methodology envisages almost twice as much electricity trade with Russia as was actually the case before the launch of the Astravyets NPP.

In other words, there is an opportunity to buy electricity indirectly from Belarus, because Russia itself would not offer such a potential amount of electricity. Accordingly, it would be rational (from the Lithuanian perspective) to reduce the throughput ratio by a half, which would correspond to the actual electricity imports from Russia (excluding the Kaliningrad region) before the launch of the Astravyets NPP.

What’s next?

The lack of mutual understanding and compromise among the Baltic states threatens to disrupt the crucial process of synchronisation with the CEN and undermines the overall political trust between the Baltic states. However, Lithuania is also partly to blame for this, as it has started to explain the threats of the Astravyets NPP too late and is now seeking just to assert its national security interests over its Baltic neighbours.

Nevertheless, the Baltic states need to find a suitable solution, as energy systems and commercial markets cannot properly function without regional coordination and co-regulation; nor can regional security be maintained without their solidarity and common efforts.

The current dispute highlights several important aspects. First, it is clear that the issue of the Astravyets NPP’s poor safety has long been ignored in Latvia and Estonia. Unlike in Lithuania, the politicians and societies in Latvia and Estonia do not consider the Astravyets NPP a huge potential ecological threat to the entire region.

Accordingly, the different approaches to the risks posed by the Astravyets NPP did not encourage finding a “Baltic consensus” on the need to halt the Astravyets NPP project as soon as possible.

To date, especially for the Latvian energy sector’s stakeholders, the Astravyets NPP has simply been a source of electricity but not a potential nuclear safety risk. Second, Lithuania sees Latvia’s aspirations to increase possible electricity trade with third countries as an attempt to profit from importing Belarus’s electricity by reselling it to Lithuania.

Vilnius considers this morally wrong given that, in practice, the Lithuanian electricity infrastructure (i.e., electricity transmission and the load of the grid) will be utilised for that process.

Lithuanian experts also fear that Latvian energy interest groups, who may have made large profits from trading in Belarusian electricity, may seek to maintain commercial flows with Russia/Belarus even after synchronisation with the CEN. This would stand in stark contrast with the political intention to physically sever the grid interconnections with Russia/Belarus after 2025.

Disagreements between the Baltic states, the real reason for which may be hidden in untransparent technical and commercial interests, can hinder the implementation of political goals and disrupt the attempt to finally break free from the post-Soviet electricity system.

All in all, this disagreement significantly undermines mutual trust and solidarity among the Baltic states, thus reducing their overall security. Political co-operation among the Baltic states has always had ups and downs, but if no consensus is reached on this issue of energy and environmental security, it could become a source of long-term dissatisfaction and resentment

This article originally appeared at the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) and was republished with minor edits by LRT English with permission.