Thursday

29th Jun 2017

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.

  • 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

MEPs call for reset in relations with Belarus

A group of 72 euro-deputies have written to EU leaders, asking them to stop funding Europe's last dictatorship and increase their support for democracy activists instead.

News in Brief

  1. Schulz calls for ban of Erdogan rally
  2. Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with Macron in Paris
  3. EU extended Russia sanctions until 2018
  4. Netherlands partially liable for Srebrenica massacre, court rules
  5. Cyprus reunification talks resume in Switzerland
  6. Cyberattack cripples Europe, spreads worldwide
  7. Scotland puts second referendum on hold
  8. EU commission fines Google €2.4 bn

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. World VisionEU, Young Leaders and Civil Society Join Forces to End Violence Against Girls
  2. EU2017EEGet the Latest News from the 2017 Estonian EU Council Presidency @EU2017EE
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Talks Should Insist on Ending Reprisals Against Critical Voices
  4. European Free AllianceEFA Is Looking for a New Intern
  5. Malta EU 2017Conservation of Atlantic Tunas: International Measures Become EU Law
  6. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCan Statin Therapy Interfere With a Physically Active Lifestyle?
  7. EPSUOn Public Services Day, Stop Austerity! Workers Need a Pay Rise!
  8. EGBAOnline Gambling: The EU Court Rejects Closed Licensing Regimes In Member States
  9. World VisionFaces of Today, Leaders of Tomorrow: Join the Debate on Violence Against Girls - 29 June
  10. ECR GroupThe EU Must Better Protect Industry from Unfair Competition
  11. Malta EU 2017Better Protection for Workers From Cancer-Causing Substances
  12. EPSUAfter 9 Years of Austerity Europe's Public Sector Workers Deserve a Pay Rise!

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFEU Trust Fund Contribution to UNICEF's Syria Crisis Response Reaches Nearly €200 Million
  2. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCan an Ideal Body Weight Lead to Premature Death?
  3. Malta EU 2017End of Roaming Charges: What Does It Entail?
  4. World VisionWorld Refugee Day, a Dark Reminder of the Reality of Children on the Move
  5. Dialogue PlatformMuslims Have Unique Responsibility to Fight Terror: Opinon From Fethullah Gülen
  6. EUSEW17Check out This Useful Infographic on How to Stay Sustainable and Energy Efficient.
  7. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Criticises the Juncker Plan's Implementation
  8. UNICEF1 in 5 Children in Rich Countries Lives in Relative Income Poverty, 1 in 8 Faces Food Insecurity
  9. International Partnership for Human Rights26 NGOs Call on Interpol Not to Intervene Versus Azerbaijani Human Rights Defenders
  10. Malta EU 2017Significant Boost in Financing for SMEs and Entrepreneurs Under New Agreement
  11. World VisionYoung People Rise up as EU Signs Consensus for Development at EU Development Days