Belarus, Lithuania, and a Nuclear Power Plant in Search of a Solution

ingress_imageDebates are still ongoing on the issue of possible construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus.
The suggested site is in the Astravets District in the Grodna Region - or just some fifty kilometres away from neighbouring Lithuania's capital of Vilnius. Bellona's regular contributor Andrei Azharousky offers a comment on the developing project and the public sentiment it is causing. Andrei Azharousky, 16/03-2009 - Translated by Marya Kaminskaya.

 Lithuania is worried, Belarus' Foreign Affairs Ministry is circling the wagons, and Astravets residents keep collecting signatures for a petition to stop the project. All the while, the Belarusian KGB - still very much alive in this former Soviet republic, which bore the brunt of the nuclear fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster - is calling activists in for questioning, and the propaganda machine of the country's nuclear establishment is painting anti-nuclear protesters as members of sex minorities, quite a stigma in a country viewed widely as one of the Eastern European states with the worst human rights record.

The site for future Chernobyl-2?

Initially, several sites were proposed to host the envisioned nuclear power plant (NPP). The choice was between the regions surrounding such Belarusian cities as Maghlyou, Vitebsk, and Grodna.

Last January, reports appeared in Belarus' official media outlets that the choice had finally been made. The NPP is supposed to be built near the village of Mikhalishki in the Astravets District of the Grodno Region. However, as activists with an organisation called The Anti-Nuclear Campaign of Belarus found out, no final decision had actually been settled upon: There was only a recommendation made by a certain unidentified commission, and making a formal decision to place a new nuclear power plant at a particular site is a prerogative afforded only the president of the country.

No reports, meanwhile, were coming that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka had made up his mind on the future location. One guess seems appropriate that the media were either indulging in wishful thinking or simply not quite grasping the situation. It is likewise possible that the government had engaged in a disinformation offensive: Reports that a decision regarding a particular NPP location had ostensibly been made, combined with mass-scale pro-nuclear propaganda, may have been meant to spin public opinion the right way, as well as probe the likely reaction on the part of neighbouring Lithuania - a European Union-integrated nation that is phasing out its nuclear power dependence, but may soon find it has a new nuclear power plant in its backyard. If the latter is true, then the idea must have been a raving success - Astrovets residents are not exactly psyched about the prospects of living inside of a 30-kilometre NPP safety zone, whereas Lithuania has already voiced concerns over the plans of building a nuclear power plant only 50 kilometres away from its capital, Vilnius.

Indeed, Lithuania authorities are currently in the grips of citing a new nuclear plant of their own, the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant. While the International Atomic Energy Agency has given a nod to the project, Vilnius has a long way to go before it garners support from surrounding nations as part of its Espo Convention obligations.

Belarusians against a nuclear power plant

As soon as Ostrovets became a hot news media item as the likeliest site for a future NPP, local residents realised there was a serious cause for worry. An obsessive NPP publicity campaign in the press pushed them enough to want to take action. In November 2008, a steering committee was put together to organise a public initiative dubbed "Ostrovets NPP is a Crime." Indeed, locals deem it none other than an atrocity that a nuclear power plant is slated to appear near where they live.

"We have no doubt that the construction of an NPP in our region in particular, and in post-Chernobyl Belarus in general, is not just a mistake, but speaks of criminal intent which would lead to another big and irreversible tragedy transcending by far the scope of national boundaries," a November 4th 2008, official statement signed by Ostrovets residents said. "We are extremely concerned about the possibility that an NPP would be built in our region and we are saying an unconditional 'No' to this lethally dangerous project."

KGB and local brass go to war - as they know it

The anti-nuclear initiative's steering committee initially comprised eight people, who found themselves immediately in a harrowing tug of war with local authorities eager to exert pressure with whatever resources they had at their disposal.

"They started serving us summons to appear for questioning at the KGB, intimidating us, saying: 'You are against the raiispolkom and the government,'" said Ivan Kruk, one of the steering committee's members, in a conversation with Bellona Web. Kruk was referring to a raionny ispolnitelny komitet - or a regional executive committee - simply said, the local administration. The so-called raiispolkoms are among the dinosaurs of the Soviet executive nomenclature that the former Soviet republic has chosen to preserve, along with the infamous KGB, after the USSR went defunct in 1991.

"The raiispolkom is carrying out a personal campaign against me; just recently they disseminated bogus flyers around the city, supposedly written by us, stating that we were from the Gay Party," said Kruk. He showed the falsified leaflet. One is positively envious of the creativity with which the Belarusian pro-nuclear camp is conducting its warfare: The pamphlet is supplied with a duplicate signature of Kruk and that of another anti-NPP crusader, possibly reproduced with the help of one of the real statements distributed earlier by the activists.

The text itself is a brainwashing rarity: "We, members of the Unified Gay Party, urge all gays, transvestites, and representatives of other sexual minorities to support our picket against the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Astravets District. Screw eating two-tailed fish and three-headed cows! We are for the two-assed!"

It's unlikely that such a spin could hurt the activists in any significant way: Kruk is a well-known member of the Ostrovets community, a pensioner, and himself a retired law enforcement professional - a former investigator. Slapping a "gay label" on a person like that simply would not work, notwithstanding whether this should at all matter.

"It's ok, we'll get through this," Kruk said, laughing. "We knew what we were stepping into." He said, however, that he had filed a complaint with the local prosecutor's office demanding to conduct an inquiry into the dissemination of falsified pamphlets bearing his name and to find and punish those responsible for it. There is, though, little trust in that law and order will prevail in this instance.

The sheer course of action undertaken by the NPP proponents is, in any case, astounding: Instead of arguing the issue at hand, they choose to portray the opposition as gays and transvestites. The very idea that it might help to resort to inciting homophobic sentiments in order to promote a nuclear power plant is plain despicable. Too bad that its perpetrators will likely remain unknown.

The signature collection campaign

Just how heart-felt the refusal to have a dangerous site in their backyard is on the part of Astravets residents is evidenced by the fact that even after the various attempts by the local authorities to thwart the anti-nuclear activities, after the KGB summons, and after the appearance of the fake leaflets with insulting innuendoes, the Anti-Nuclear Steering Committee is still holding together. Quite the opposite of giving in to the pressure, it keeps attracting new supporters.

"Our core group now numbers around 15 people. But we are denied making statements in local newspapers, or taking part in meetings with workforce collectives where the authorities are agitating for the NPP," said Kruk.

As arguments against the NPP, the statement lists the threat of an accident or a disaster prompted by an operational failure at the plant, a possible increase in cancer incidence caused by so-called "sanctioned" radiation discharges that a nuclear power plant releases even in the course of routine operation (please see a report on this subject here), the risk of another violent earthquake of the scale of the 1909 disaster (the 7.0 magnitude quake of 1909 was the strongest ever recorded in Belarus), and the dominant western winds, which would carry the radioactive fallout all over the country should an accident in fact take place.

The signature campaign and the vigorous anti-NPP activities in Ostrovets are something that is really putting the authorities on the spot: Official claims that Belarusians have long put Chernobyl behind them, made peace with the tragedy, and are in full support of the construction of a dangerous energy site sound anything but credible.

The open statement is addressed to President Lukashenka, Prime Minister Syarhei Sidorsky, European Union member countries, and a range of media outlets. A reaction has yet to come from the Belarusian government, but Lithuania has already stated it is bothered with the prospect of the new NPP operating in close proximity to its capital city.

Vilnius only within a 50-kilometre shot from a nuclear power plant

Lithuania's Foreign Affairs Minister Vigaudas Ushatskas was one of the top-ranking Lithuanian officials who have recently voiced concerns over the new nuclear power plant's placement so close to the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. Ushatskas proposed that the European Union create a special commission to look into the project's safety issues and its potential detriment to the environment.

Belarus is trying its best to placate its neighbour. Minsk's official media have recently quoted the Belarusian Foreign Ministry's press secretary Andrei Papou as saying: "Lithuania can rest assured that the construction of the future Belarusian NPP will be conducted in full agreement with international obligations."

It is, however, a plain fact of today's reality that contingencies and catastrophic explosions occur at nuclear power plants in spite of what various international obligations or national legislation may have to say on the subject; the Belarusian Foreign Ministry's promises to ensure the opposite could hardly appease the very understandable concerns on the part of Lithuania.

On January 21st, the Environment Committee of the Lithuanian Parliament, the Seimas, held a meeting to discuss, among other items on the agenda, the issues associated with Belarus' plans to build its new nuclear power plant near the Lithuanian border. After brief reports by representatives of the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of the Environment, Belarusian ecologist Yuras Meleshkevich - an envoy sent by Ostrovets residents to speak at the meeting - distributed copies of the open statement protesting the construction, complete with the 270 signatures that activists had by then collected in the district.

A press release published by The Anti-Nuclear Campaign of Belarus said at the time: "Residents of the Astravets District are voicing their objection that the decision-making on the placement of the new plant has been carried out without their participation. They are continuing to collect signatures to defend their right to a favourable environment."

"The local population in the Ostrovets District is very worried about the choice of site for the NPP construction, as this is an area of rich and beautiful nature, which attracts people for open-air pastime and recreation," said Meleshkevich as he handed copies of the Astravets statement to the Seimas members.

The statement said, in particular: "We are appealing to all citizens of the Republic of Belarus and to the European community with one request - to stop the implementation of the 'Astravets NPP' project."

After the statement had been presented, Environment Committee chair Jonas Simenas said: "The information we have received from our Belarusian colleagues warrants careful examination. We will analyse the materials at hand and review this issue."

How viable is the project anyway?

Earlier official reports pegged the start of the construction at 2009. The first reactor block of the new NPP is projected to begin operation in 2016, and the next one in 2018. Even if the assumption that the choice has in fact been made to place the plant in Astravets is true - there is, as yet, no confirmation from President Lukashenka, which means that the decision still awaits formal approval - one complication remains that Belarus, for now, lacks fundamental components that a project of this scale requires.

The government has yet to select an equipment supplier or even to announce a tender or any alternative procedure to choose one. The state is likewise hard-pressed to secure enough funds to finance construction works. The costs of building a nuclear power plant of a capacity of around 2 gigawatts may set the country's budget back by as much as ?5 billion to EUR ?6 billion, which is no small amount.

Of course, there is always the expectation that the new NPP will be another "present" to Belarus from Russia - which may simply build the plant for its neighbour and append the construction costs to the already gigantic debt sheet run up by the Belarusian government. One should hope, however, that at the time of a raging financial and economic crisis, Russia will refrain from making such an expensive and, essentially, perilous gift.