Belarus is on the verge of opening a new nuclear power plant but concerns over its safety levels are rising with the fear of a potential Chernobyl incident in mind. Elina Morhunova and Yannis Karamitsios take a look at the issues around the new plant.
Saturday 26 April saw the 34th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster – an event still haunting Europe’s nuclear power policies. The disaster has become a buzzword used by anti-nuclear activists against proposals for new nuclear power plants in the post-Soviet countries: “we don’t want a new Chernobyl”. With a power plant currently under construction in the Astravyets District of Belarus, some 16 km from the Lithuanian border, the fears for another Chernobyl are rising again in the region.
Work on Astravyets started in 2012 and on December 2019, its first unit started hot trials. The construction and activation of Astravyets is basically perceived as Russian project with a $10 billion credit line opened by Russia and its AES-2006 new generation power plant technology developed by Russia’s Atomenergoproekt along with fuel provision by the Rosatom controlled TVEL company at the heart of the new plant.
Safety and geopolitical worries
So what is the concern around the project? Firstly, there are general safety concerns that are directed against new nuclear power plants regardless of any safety protocols in place. History matters here and Belarus was heavily impacted by the Chernobyl accident and the result is that its active civil society is very cautious to say the least, about the repetition of this catastrophe. Movements against the Astravyets project started as far back as 2008, before the beginning of its construction, with the collection of signatures against it but these objections are not only restricted to Belarus.
Lithuania and Ukriane, two directly affected neighbours, have also been very vocal with Lithuania having raised specific safety concerns, because the project has not completed all stages of the EU “stress tests” – a risk-and-safety assessment of a plant’s ability to withstand damage from hazards. Lithuanians are not so concerned by the technology of the project but rather the seismic activity of the region – the precedent of the Fukushima tragedy of 2011 also plays its role here. A movement against the Astravyets nuclear power plant has been recently established in Lithuania by representatives of political parties and public figures. On 17 February 2020, politicians from the center right party, the Homeland Union along with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Pavlo Klimkin, gathered together and started collecting signatures to petition against Astravyets. The leading politicians of the movement are MP Zygimantas Pavilionis and MEP Petras Austrevicius. Their intention has been to also collect signatures in neighbouring states, including EU members, and present the petition at the European Parliament. Homeland Union has also wrote to Belarusian President Lukashenko stating their concerns and demands.
There is geopolitical issues, with the power plant perceived as one more case of Russian power projection in the broader Baltic area. It also increases Belarus’ dependence on the Kremlin as a result of the Russian loan to finance the project possibly becoming a future major burden on the Belarusian public finances and hence providing the Kremlin with yet another instrument of pressure. Russian involvement may also introduce further hurdles on the way towards closer EU – Belarus relations.
The way forward – A European response
Pressure is now on the EU not treat the Astravyets power plant as an acceptable project. And while it is certainly not realistic to expect that Europe could block its completion, some influence could be put on the Belarusian regime to delay the plant’s opening for an infinite period and also seek to address the required improvements . The European Parliament has an opportunity to back up the petition of the Lithuanian politicians and issue its own resolution against the initialisation of the plant. If the EU Council were to politically support Lithuania, the other Baltic countries and Poland could also actively row in as they are directly concerned themselves from any potential accident. Political force needs to be applied on Belarus to adopt the EU standards and carry out the necessary stress tests, otherwise it could face reduction of any EU assistance on other programs.
A similar message should be sent to Russia. Moscow must become aware that it will also be subject to some ‘conditionality’ if the Astravyets power plant starts its operations soon and its safety standards are not improved. The EU may also need to consider direct sanctions against ROSATOM and other relevant companies involved in the electricity trade produced by the Astravyets nuclear plant. The current circumstances could be beneficial in this respect, as the price of oil has plummeted and Russia’s financial situation is more vulnerable than ever.
Speaking of the Baltic States, their connection with the synchronous grid of Continental Europe, the largest electricity grid in the world, should be concluded at the earliest possible. This is important to reduce Baltic states’ dependence on energy resources from Russia. All in all the EU, together with associated countries in the region, must try to cease trading in electricity generated by unsafe nuclear power plants that threaten the national survival of its member states.
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