Wednesday

27th Jan 2021

Letter

Belarus nuclear plant: right of reply

  • 'Since the first full-scale pressurised water reactor (PWR) was connected to the grid 63 years ago, there has been no single fatality caused by any accident on PWR-based power plants anywhere in the world' (Photo: Wikimedia)

Belarus' new nuclear power plant in Ostrovets has long been a vexing subject for European policymakers. Anti-nuclear groups and neighbouring Lithuania have been campaigning against the project from day one.

Picture sinister Russians planting something radioactive next to the EU borders.

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Add the words of anti-nuclear activists talking about simmering fears of a disaster and calls for European solidarity from an EU member state, a Nato ally, scared by the prospects of a nuclear fallout.

Season well with rumours of concealed incidents. The narrative is based on a perfect recipe: it is obvious which is the light side, and which is the dark one.

As crystal clear as it may seem, it's still best served with a pinch of salt.

Against the backdrop of a large-scale state-sponsored scaremongering campaign, which brands something 'unsafe', the rational counter arguments are helpless.

Instead of objectively assessing the technologies on their merits we are hoaxed into the emotive territory of trusting someone's claims.

In fact, no-one has to 'trust' any nuclear developer, Russian or otherwise. Any claim that something is safe has to be doubted and scrutinised, and rightly so.

Every new nuclear build today is unthinkable without the approval of independent national regulators and international agencies.

They have mighty teams of the most conservative nuclear safety experts tasked with ensuring that no single project can possibly end up in a severe accident. Belarus receives international missions, experts and journalists from the EU, the United States and the rest of the world onsite almost every month.

The UN's nuclear agency, the IAEA, which has been working with Belarus and regularly inspecting the site, expressed no concerns about the plant's safety and has praised Belarus as one of the most advanced 'newcomer' nuclear countries.

In response to opponents' claims that the site is not suitable for the project due to it allegedly being built on an earthquake zone, the IAEA mission concluded that "the plant's design adequately addressed the site's characteristics and accounted for any "external hazards, such as earthquakes, floods and extreme weather, as well as human-induced events."

Once ever 15m years

Again, it's not the vendor's claim, but an independent objective assessment, that the reactors deployed in Belarus belong to the generation of nuclear technology for which the likelihood of a severe accident is one for 15–20 million years of operation.

That's even assuming the 'perfect storm' scenario of an external event combined with the malfunctioning of equipment and human errors.

Since the first full-scale pressurised water reactor (PWR) was connected to the grid 63 years ago, there has been no single fatality caused by any accident on PWR-based power plants anywhere in the world.

But even if we are unconvinced and believe that a serious accident is still possible, we have to contextualise the risks, comparing those of a cure to those of the disease.

Burning fossil fuels, such as natural gas, and especially coal, for power generation is associated with most harmful nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions.

Emissions which, every year, according to the WHO and the European Environment Agency figures, cause more premature deaths in Europe than all nuclear accidents in the world's history combined.

It is estimated that the air pollution from coal-fired power plants in Europe killed 22,900 people in 2013 alone which is tantamount to the death toll of five Chernobyls.

Branding a latest generation nuclear power plant 'unsafe' and cutting it off from the grid while increasing dependency on deadly fossil-fuel power generation is practicing hypocrisy on a spectacular scale.

Not only does the commissioning of the Belarus nuclear power plant save lives by cutting NOx and fine particle emissions, crucially, it also dramatically reduces carbon intensity of the power sector.

Belarus has long been reliant on imported fossil fuels in meeting its energy needs.

According to the International Energy Agency, over 93 percent of its primary energy supply comes from fossil fuels.

Emissions from burning natural gas for power generation and heating amount to over half of the country's total 55 Mt CO2 per year.

The World Nuclear Association has hailed the Belarus nuclear power plant as "a vital contribution to achieving global clean energy goals".

Indeed, the addition of 2.4 GWe of nuclear capacity to its natural gas-dominated electricity mix will cut about 15-20 percent of Belarus's total CO2 emissions.

By cutting off dispatchable low-carbon electricity supply from the carbon intensive Baltic grid Lithuania hampers the prospects of further saving millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions in the region.

The debate around the plant in Belarus is not about safety. Ensuring safety is paramount. The real choice is whether to let antinuclear bigotry, scaremongering and spin shape policymaking agenda or secure clean air and the supply of low carbon energy into the future.

Author bio

Vladimir Gorn is executive officer for Eastern Europe of Rosatom nuclear corporation.

Disclaimer

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

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