MS Risk Blog

The Safety and Security Implications of Belarus’ Nuclear Power Plant

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Countries in Eastern Europe knows very well that nuclear power plants can be both beneficial and harmful. The 1986 explosion of Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine resulted in clouds spreading deadly radioactive particles across the region. Following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Belarus suffered more harm than any other region in the Soviet Union due to its location downwind from the plant. 34 years after this nuclear disaster caused damage to the southern part of Belarus, it now plans to fire up its first nuclear plant in July.

This plan has not gone without criticism. Lithuanian Energy Minister Vaiciunas said the “lessons that were given 30 years ago in Chernobyl have not been learned.” When interviewed by The Independent about this, a local resident said locals were split about the project. The plant gives above-average wages and improves local infrastructure. Still, her generation remains “uneasy”. She said that “[t]he thought of what happened back in 1986 can’t fail to make you anxious about what may happen. You know they may not tell you the whole truth.”

Yury Voronezhtsev, the man who led the official Soviet response to Chernobyl, told The Independent he did not believe “that our Belarusian construction workers are any better than the Soviet ones. We have the same people, and the same systems. Don’t forget that Anatoly Aleksandrov, the physicist who designed Chernobyl, assured us his plant was so safe it could be built on Red Square. His confidence did not age well.” He said it was “sad” that Belarusian authorities pressed on with the plant given the sensitivity around this locally. While a December 2018 poll showed that 71 percent in the Astravets district supported the plant, the accuracy of this is difficult to assess given that Belarus is a tightly controlled country.

Nuclear-reactor design has however improved markedly since Chernobyl. Furthermore, the Belarusian nuclear power plant is not a copy of either Chernobyl or Fukushima, the 2011 incident at the latter being the most severe nuclear accident since the explosion at the former. Astravets run third-generation pressurised-water reactors, distinct from the models used in Ukraine and Japan, and equipped with safety measures intended to prevent the kind of accidents that happened there. It is claimed it includes passive safety systems capable of triggering an automatic shutdown and a device installed in a concrete pit underneath the reactor that traps molten fuel in case of overheating, rendering it nearly impossible for radiation to infiltrate the environment.

Still, the Lithuanian Energy Minister, Vaiciunas, says the plant is “a threat to our national security, public health, and environment.” In late May, Lithuania’s ex-energy minister Arvydas Sekmokas said that Europe could pay a heavy price if Belarus fires up the plant. First, it is claimed that the plant is built in breach of safety standards. “Minsk has disregarded International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommendations made after the Fukushima disaster that plants should not be built within 100 kilometres of major population centres,” Sekmokas said. Astravets nuclear power plant lies just 45km from Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. Vilnius’ population of more than half a million people will need to be evacuated if an accident takes place. Lithuania claims that while the power plant has “generally” met the requirements of an EU test designed to prevent another Fukushima disaster, the fact that it is not far from Vilnius was not addressed in this test.

Second, the power plant is built with Russian money and supervision. Vilnius claims the project is a geopolitical scheme headed by Russia to keep Belarus tight. In Lithuania’s 2019 National Threat Assessment, the project was said to enhance Russia’s position in the region. Foreign minister Linas Linkevicius said that in addition to ensuring impeccable safety of the plant, Lithuania and the EU has to work together to maintain the freedom and independence of Belarus. “It imposes a huge economic burden on the country and increases its dependence on Russia,” Linkevicius said. Meanwhile Belarus sees the power plant as a means for reducing its energy dependence on Russian natural gas. The Belarusian Security Council decided to construct it in 2008 after a bilateral energy dispute with Russia. Yet, Rosatom, a Russian state-owned nuclear energy company, got the contract to build the power plant. Coupled with the loan given by Russia to fund it, it appears that Belarus will still be strongly dependent on Russia.

Minsk argues that it has more interest in ensuring the nuclear plant’s safety than most considering how the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown impacted Belarus. A spokesperson for Rosatom told The Independent that “[t]he reactors being used are among the safest in the world and designed to risk the possibility of even the most unlikely event such as a plane strike(…) and the most up to date legally binding set of regulation does not specify any requirements regarding distances between nuclear power plants and cities.” The European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group, a body composed of top nuclear policy officials from EU member states, gave the nuclear power station an “overall positive” review. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s assessment was also positive.

Still, Lithuania continues to press on. On June 9 several Lithuanian lawmakers from the opposition conservative Homeland Union staged a picket outside the Latvian Embassy in Vilnius where they urged Latvia not to buy electricity from Astravets nuclear power plant. Meanwhile Mikhadyuk, Belarus’ deputy energy minister, said that “[t]he position that Lithuania has taken towards the project is absolutely unsubstantiated, it is all about politicising.” Lithuania has invested a large amount of money in a liquefied natural gas floating storage and regasification unit. Astravets is a potentially cheaper and cleaner source of power generation that is readily available for neighbouring nations. Lithuania therefore appears to have an economic motivation to get countries to not buy energy generated from the plant. However, the country denies that this is the reason it is against the project.

Despite this economic motivation, it seems that Lithuania is genuinely concerned about transparency regarding accidents and safety. A couple of incidents have revealed that Belarusian authorities are not completely transparent about the plant. There has already been two known health and safety events connected to the reactor vessel. It was dropped from a crane during installation in July 2016, an incident that Belarus did not admit for weeks. Five months later, the replacement reactor vessel collided with a railway pylon during transport. At least five workers have died in construction accidents, and there has been at least one incident involving fire in the control room. Furthermore, it was announced on May 26 that 100 workers from the plant are infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The Astravets NPP has been at the centre of a breakdown in relations between Belarus and Lithuania during the last decade. Due to its location, it is likely that Lithuania will never fully approve of the plant. In October 2019, the Lithuanian government conducted a major emergency preparedness operation imitating a disaster response to a nuclear meltdown and bought 4 million iodine pills for distribution to citizens. These actions have increased concerns in the country about the dangers of Astravets. Yet the latter dialogue and agreements between Lithuania and Belarus could indicate a warming of relations between the two.

Still, it seems that Lithuania will continue to press Belarus on this issue as Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda will raise Astravets’ safety issues at a European Council summit on June 19. Whether or not Lithuania’s motivation is the economics of it or genuine concern about safety, it is clear that Belarus should take this seriously. If Astravets do not comply with safety requirements and Belarus is not transparent about accidents, it can have disastrous consequences.