Astravyets NPP stress testing: is it time for the government to consider iodine pills?

The Belarussian Nuclear Power Plant (Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant) stress testing result evaluation from European Union investigators announced this week is “overall positive.” That said, the experts presented a number of recommendations to the Belarussian national regulator. Minsk is celebrating, while Vilnius has declared that the Belarussian nuclear power plant is unsafe because the tests are by far not the final evaluation of security or a response to Lithuanian requirements, writes. However, it would appear that there is little hope left for the Lithuanian government to block the Belarussian power plant. Is it perhaps time for the Lithuanian government to consider iodine pills?

The European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) has finally evaluated the so-called stress tests performed in the Belarussian nuclear power plant. According to professor Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, these conclusions are a loss for Lithuania, while benefitting Belarus and its institutions.

“Now that the report features what is essentially a positive stance, the report can be made use of, highlighting the positive segments as a basis to continue the project,” the head of VU TSPMI dr. prof. Ramūnas Vilpišauskas states.

Academic Eugenijus Ušpuras says that the project being developed near Astravyets has serious flaws: a 1908 earthquake was not considered. According to the academic, if a similar earthquake occurred now or a heavy airplane crashed, the nuclear power plant’s dome would not hold up, personnel would be unable to contain a major nuclear accident.

“They did not even analyse the crash of a large aircraft. They analysed only the fall of a 20-ton airplane on the reactor building’s protective dome. It is specifically what must hold up in the case of an accident, to localise it, but it is easily compromised,” LEI Nuclear Equipment Security Laboratory head, prof. Dr. hab. Eugenijus Ušpuras believes.

According to experts, in the case of a major accident, it would be Vilnius that would suffer first, a large-scale accident could impact half of Lithuania’s territory. Neris River, which is just six kilometres from the Belarussian nuclear power plant, could contaminate not just eleven water sites in Vilnius, but also those of Kaunas Kleboniškis and Pabartonys near Jonava.

Belarussian institutions must prepare an action plan and the European Commission must negotiate, how to enact it. Lithuanian officials assure that the reactors in Astravyets cannot currently be turned on until flaws are removed, however the decisions remain in solely the hands of the Belarussian nuclear energy security regulator.

“To my understanding, we have no legal powers to do anything, but we can express our requirements on risk reduction and that the maximum of those security measures would be implemented until the power plant launches,” VATESI head Michail Demčenko states.

However, Lithuanians already have bitter experiences with Rosatom’s views of neighbours’ wishes. Due to this, even the head of cabinet is no longer optimistic.

“In essence they should consider it, but the whole progression of the constructions shows that anything can happen and there could be interpretations,” Saulius Skvernelis warned.

Former long-time State Nuclear Power Safety Inspectorate (VATESI) head Saulius Kutas regrets that Lithuania did not take decisive steps when the Belarussians chose to select a construction site for their nuclear power plant near Vilnius, in an earthquake zone.

“Time heals all wounds, however if it is a lethal wound, time will do little to help. And that first mistake was just that, how the location was selected, now internationally recognised as unsuitable. But now that purely technical questions are being reviewed, time passing will definitely do nothing to improve the nuclear power plant,” the 1997-2006 head of VATESI Saulius Kutas said.

The construction works of the Belarussian nuclear power plant were accompanied by incidents and serious accidents. Only rumours, independent Belarussian media reports reach Lithuania. More accurate information must be fought for – a number of notes have been presented to Belarus. The VATESI has been struggling for years now to come to agreement on bilateral information exchanges.

Belarus hid an incident for a whole two weeks – media reported that a reactor container fell from 4 meters up high. Rosatom representatives responded that after raising the container to a height of 4 meters, the crane malfunctioned, the reactor container slid down, but only had its paint scratched.

Rosatom agreed to change the damage reactor part, however has yet to securely supply a replacement – the reactor container hit a railway electricity supply point. Rosatom assured that during this incident, the cargo transported to Astravyets received no damage.

When building nuclear objects, a culture of security is crucial. In 2015, the Belsat television reported on routine theft from the nuclear construction site.

Novaja Gazeta journalist Irina Chalip performed an investigation. She travelled to the surroundings of Astravyets and asked, “What is being stolen from the nuclear power plant.”

Minsk officially denied such reports, the KGB was directed to ensure no information is leaked from the construction site. However, with just a few years passing, the cat was let out of the bag.

In June, several Gomelpromstroj employees, who worked in the nuclear plant construction site, were convicted. The proceedings went on behind closed doors. It was announced that the accused were stealing wiring, metal armature intended for the plant’s construction.

In May, the head of the Belarussian KGB presented head of state Aleksander Lukashenko with secret information. Energy Minister Vladimir Potupchik was immediately fired. Officially, this was explained to be a result of patroning his relatives’ business, which supplied energy industry companies with construction materials for prices well in excess of market price. At the same time, the head of the state Belenerg group Jevgeny Voronov also lost his post.

During his annual address, A. Lukashenko complained how a number of figures in the ministry of energy and subordinate companies “get drunk to the point of failing to appear at work,” the nuclear power plant being funded with ten billion dollars, but the project being mired in ambiguity.

“The energy, construction and architecture ministry systems contain hundreds of scientists, thousands of specialists, but none have yet understandably explained to me, how this power plant will be integrated into the country’s economy,” the Belarussian president bemoaned.

The Belarussian president exploding in anger and the firings of responsible officials is testament to the chaos of the Belarussian nuclear power plant project. However, the process has gained momentum, billions in Russian tax payer dollars have been spent, thus there is likely nothing that can halt it – the reactors near Astravyets will be launched in the coming few years. The solidarity of EU institutions will likely be limited to recommendational measures, the implementation of which will depend on the general contractor Rosatom and Belarussian institutions’ decisions.

“I believe that it is not realistic to think that this project can be halted or a new location sought for the Belarussian power plant. As such, we can only repeat what is being said. I am unsure this will have any impact. I believe that a number of EU member states and institutions are little concerned with Lithuania’s position,” R. Vilpišauskas summarises.

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