Blaring emergency sirens across Lithuania marked the start of a four-day civil protection exercise aimed at testing the authorities' readiness to respond to a potential nuclear accident at Belarus' Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant.
Alert messages were sent out to inform people about the exercise and advise them to turn on LRT Television and Radio for further information about what to do in a nuclear or radiation emergency.
"In the event of a nuclear or radiological emergency [...], go as quickly as possible to the nearest building with undamaged windows and walls," the announcer said.
"Close all doors and windows and seal all vents and chimneys; the safest place to be is in the center of the building or basement," she said, adding that people should stay tuned in for further updates ad recommendations.
The LT72 emergency preparedness website went down for around ten minutes after the exercise started.
The Interior Ministry's spokeswoman said this was due to an influx of traffic.
"It always happens after the sirens are sounded. The site goes down for a few minutes when the first traffic arrives and is back online in a few minutes," Ieva Dirmaite said.
Some 70 percent of the population received emergency alert messages on their mobile phones and 67 out of 70 warning sirens worked properly during the testing of the system in southeastern Lithuania on Tuesday, the organisers of the civil protection exercise said.
"According to preliminary estimates, the reach was approximately 70 percent," Mindaugas Kanapickas, deputy director of the Fire and Rescue Department, told reporters.
Some mobile devices were probably not enabled to receive the alert messages and there could also have been licensing issues, he added.
On the sunny autumn day, the sound of sirens at the Panorama mall in central Vilnius was faint.
"I heard nothing and didn't received any message; I don't know what this exercise is about," Laura Paskeviciute, a 34-year-old nurse, told BNS.
The woman said she would probably not know how to behave in the event of a nuclear incident, but added that such drills are useful and necessary.
"There's a basement in Šilo Street, I'd run there," said Algirdas Sruoga, a 50-year-old sociologist. The man said he did not hear the sirens and did not receive the alert message on his mobile phone.
Artiomas Klimovas, a 27-year-old programmer, said he received the message but did not hear the sirens. "I really wouldn't know how to behave [...] Such exercises are needed to test the systems. The message on the phone gave links to sites where information can be found," he said.
The so-called 'Astravyets exercise' will run through Friday.
On Wednesday, groups of 50 volunteers will be evacuated from Švenčionys District to Zarasai District and from Vilnius District to the municipality of Kalvarija.
In a so-called 'temporary relocation' drill, the same number of volunteers will be moved from Šalčininkai District to Varėna District.
Human decontamination procedures will be simulated and iodine tablets will be handed out. An aerial radiation survey involving two helicopters and a ground radiation survey will be conducted on Thursday.
The results of the nuclear accident response readiness exercise will be discussed on Friday.
The exercise will involve a total of 24 public institutions and six municipalities, including around 300 officers, soldiers and public servants, and observers from the United Kingdom, Latvia, Estonia and Poland.
Vilnius' municipal officials will only take part as observers after the city and the central government failed to agree on the scenario.
Nuclear plant's launch may be "somewhat pushed back"
Meanwhile, Lithuanian Interior Minister Rita Tamašunienė said on Tuesday that the almost-completed Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant may be launched somewhat later than it has been said.
Russia's Rosatom, the Astravyets plant's main contractor, said earlier that the first reactor would come online in late 2019.
According to the Lithuanian minister, Belarus may have problems due to a decision by some countries in the region not to purchase the plant's electricity.
"Complying with all the protocols requirements is not easy for the Belarusian nuclear power plant, taking also into account our neighboring countries' position not to buy electricity from the plant," Tamašunienė told reporters.
"We think that the launch procedure may be pushed backed somewhat," she added.
The Lithuanian and Polish governments have said they will not purchase electricity from the plant, but some experts say it may enter the common Baltic market via Latvia, after announcing in August that it may purchase electricity from Belarus.
The Lithuanian government says the Astravyets plant under construction some 50 kilometers from Vilnius and less than 30 kilometers from the Lithuanian border fails to meet international safety and environmental standards, an allegation that Minsk denies.