Sunday

23rd Feb 2020

Opinion

EU should put pressure on Belarus nuclear project

  • We know that Ostrovets is being built in a seismic zone, but we know very little else about it (Photo: Peter Teffer)

If, one clear day, you went up in a hot air balloon over my beloved home town of Vilnius, a Unesco World Heritage site, you would see, not far off, a two-headed monster.

Your eyes do not deceive you. There it is: the Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), with its two reactors, being built just 53km away on the other side of the EU border with Belarus.

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  • Chernobyl plant scattered radiation across Erope (Photo: Ratcliff, Trey)

The construction started in 2009. One reactor is to go online in 2018 and a second one in 2020. Two more are apparently planned by 2025.

It is being built in flagrant disregard of international safety standards.

It is designed to serve Russia’s strategic interests and makes no commercial sense.

It is also being built by an unpredictable dictator with potential nuclear weapons aspirations and the EU institutions, for their part, are doing nothing to try to stop it.

Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s energy chief, went up in the balloon over the old town in Vilnius last month and he was privately astonished by the proximity of Ostrovets.

When he came back down, he visited the Lithuanian parliament, where he spoke fine words about energy solidarity and independence, but he did not mention the NPP once, leaving MPs in shock.

Unique sight

What he saw was unique in Europe because, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, nuclear plants these days, after so many accidents, ought to be built much further away from population centres.

From 2018 onward, the 1 million people who live in the Vilnius district, meaning one out of three Lithuanians, will have to live in constant readiness of evacuation in case there is an accident.

From next year, the river Neris (called the Viliya in Belarus), which supplies drinking water to Vilnius, Kaunas, and other major Lithuanian cities, will be used to cool the plant’s atomic reactors.

We know that Ostrovets is being built in a seismic zone, but we know very little else about it.

Belarus has not respected the UN’s so called Espoo and Aarhus conventions on international oversight and impact assessments.

It has refused to conduct Ostrovets stress tests in line with a European Commission agreement that already dates back six years. It has also refused to let MEPs, including a recent delegation that I was due to take part in, visit the site.

Meanwhile, the information that has emerged is worrying.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ autocratic leader, has boasted that: “Ostrovets NPP has to be the cheapest nuclear power plant in the world and must be built in the shortest possible period of time”.

Poor safety culture has so far led to at least six incidents and several deaths at the construction site.

On 10 July last year, for instance, the builders dropped a 330-tonne reactor shell while it was being moved.

We know that only because a local resident and opposition activist posted details about it on social media, but, did the shell crack? Was it checked? They say yes, but we do not know if we can believe them.

You might be thinking: “This project, somewhere deep in the forests of eastern Europe, has nothing to do with me”.

Ostrovets is 430km from Warsaw, 610km from Helsinki, 860km from Berlin, and 1,500km from Brussels, but these distances are nothing in the nightmare scenario of a nuclear accident.

When the Chernobyl accident occurred in Ukraine in 1986, the winds carried contaminated material to almost all corners of Europe and Scandinavia. It led to some 10,000 birth defects and 10,000 cases of thyroid cancer on the continent over the next three decades.

When the Fukushima accident occurred in Japan in 2011, radioactive material reached the US west coast just two days later.

Russian strategy

Even assuming all goes well, the Ostrovets plant will increase Moscow’s power in a region that only recently broke free from its sphere of influence.

It is being built and financed by Russia.

Atomstroyexport, the general contractor, is a subsidiary of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom), which loaned Lukashenko $9 billion (€8bn) of the plant’s $11 billion price tag.

The first two reactors are to have a capacity of 2,340 MW of electricity and to create 1,000 permanent jobs in Belarus.

The cheap Russian electricity, which can be cut off as a tool of political blackmail at any moment, is designed to keep the Baltic States hooked to the old Soviet grid and to undermine projects, such as liquid natural gas terminals, in the region designed to reduce energy dependence on Russia.

Lithuania has taken steps to prevent this. The LNG terminal is already functioning in Klaipeda since end-2014. In April, Lithuania also passed a law that banned electricity imports from unsafe reactors.

There is already a similar law in place in Sweden and one under consideration in Poland.

Belarus does not need all that new electricity and EU states increasingly do not want it, but Rosatom is pressing ahead because Ostrovets is a political, rather than a commercial, project.

Autocratic states

It leaves me to add that the Lukashenko system executed at least one person this year and four last year.

It is the only country in Europe that still has the death penalty.

If you think this is irrelevant, take a look at post-revolutionary Iran. There, an autocratic state which also executes people in a sign of its disregard for international standards, turned civilian nuclear facilities into a clandestine weapons programme.

Could the same happen in Europe?

Belarus inherited Soviet nuclear warheads when the USSR collapsed, but it gave them back to Russia before Lukashenko came to power.

He later said: “That was a grave mistake. We should not have done it. If we had nuclear weapons they [the West] would have treated us differently”.

In the end, the EU and the US stopped Iran by imposing economic sanctions and by threatening military action.

But when it comes to Ostrovets, the big EU countries and the EU institutions are happy to look the other way.

Sefcovic is happy to walk off without saying a word.

If the EU thinks that having properly regulated nuclear facilities in France, Germany, or Scandinavia is enough to keep Europe safe even as Russia builds a risky one right on the EU border, then it is kidding itself.

Lithuania, as a condition of its EU entry, closed down the Ignalina NPP because it had unsafe, Chernobyl-type reactors.

My country is still paying a high price for this and has a moral right to expect EU solidarity for its energy security.

But what the Ignalina closure really showed was that nuclear safety is not a national, or bilateral, or even a regional issue - it is a continental one.

EU leverage

The EU has relaxed sanctions on Belarus and is pouring in grants and loans, for instance, from the European Investment Bank, to help local authorities and small businesses in the name of better relations.

In fact, Lukashenko is using that EU financial help to keep economic protesters, such as those who demonstrated against his unemployment tax in March, off the streets. This is leverage.

I call on EU leaders and on the European Commission to make Ostrovets NPP the main topic on the EU-Belarus agenda and to say: “Not a euro-cent more unless you halt this time-bomb of a project in the heart of Europe”.

Lithuania and Poland cannot stop it by themselves, but without concerted EU leadership, we are all that stands between Minsk and Moscow’s political machinations and the safety of every man, woman, and child in Europe.

Petras Austrevicius is a liberal MEP from Lithuania

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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