The story of the birth of the Astravyets nuclear power plant

Belarus' nuclear power plant under construction in Astravyets
DELFI / Domantas Pipas

A power plant being built 40 kilometres away from Vilnius is important to Lithuanians living today. The power plant that is to be launched next year is identified by the Lithuanian Government as a threat to Lithuania’s national security, environment and public health. Even though some politicians did not believe Belarusians would dare start the construction, now we hear blaming reflections concerning the location, the Neris water to be used, incidents on the construction site, unwillingness to cooperate, etc. The Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant (N-plant) is said to disregard international environmental and nuclear safety standards, and the impact of an accident might be experienced by cities in the range of one thousand kilometers.

DELFI has launched the project “Astravyets. A Monster Nearby” which aims at a deeper insight into the monster growing up close to Lithuania and the consequences it can have. While carrying out the project, we looked at the Astravyets N-plant from the basket of a hot air balloon, talked to the inhabitants of Buivydžiai Village who live at the Lithuania-Belarus border, analysed technological processes of nuclear energy. As DELFI journalists wanted to visit the construction site, they officially asked for accreditation and did not get any response for over a month. Every repeated inquiry resulted in the same reply – information is being checked.

The first part of the project deals with the story of how the Astravyets N-plant was born.

20 December
Belarusian government finally decides to construct a nuclear power plant in Astravyets, close to Lithuania.

22 June
Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is considering a possibility of financial support to Belarus for the construction of a nuclear power plant.

After his visit to Astravyets, the then Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius says he does not believe Belarus will build a power plant.

11 October
An agreement is signed between “Atomstroieksport”, a subsidiary of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation “Rosatom“, and Belarus representatives on the construction of two units of the Astravyets N-plant.

29 June
Russia lends USD 10 billion to Belarus for the construction of the N-plant.

9 August
President of Belarus Aliaksandr Lukashenka participates in the ceremony of laying a time-capsule for future generations on the construction site of the N-plant.

2 September
The construction of the N-plant reaches an above-ground stage.

12 November
The then Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius says Lithuania will not buy electric power generated in the Astravyets N-plant.

22 January
Former heads of state of Lithuania – Valdas Adamkus and Vytautas Landsbergis – urge to take every measure to prevent the Astravyets N-plant from being built.

28 December
The frame of a reactor is brought to Astravyets.

7 June
Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis says that the Astravyets N-plant is a threat to Lithuania’s national security, environment and public health.

The first unit of the Astravyets N-plant is scheduled for launch.

The second unit of the Astravyets N-plant is scheduled for launch.

Threat of earthquakes

The date, 20 December 2008, when the Belarusian government finally decided to construct a nuclear power plant in Astravyets, very close to Lithuania, might be considered the birth of the Astravyets N-plant.

Closeness to its state border and capital Vilnius is one of the main concerns for Lithuania.

In its Statement on Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant under Construction in Belarus, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Lithuania emphasises that the construction site was selected before launching a cross-border environmental impact assessment (EIA) under the Espoo Convention. “That is a gross violation of the Espoo convention. It is important to note that no cross-border EIA of the Astravyets NPP has been conducted with Lithuania yet; therefore, according to the provisions of the Espoo Convention, the construction of the Astravyets NPP shall be regarded as illegal. An assessment by Lithuanian experts shows that in the event of any large-scale accident in the Astravyets NPP a negative radiological impact would affect Lithuania’s capital Vilnius and one third of the entire population of Lithuania,” the document says.

The Statement also mentions that 40 magnitude 5 Richter-scale earthquakes have been recorded in the region since 1616. 1987 witnessed two 2.5 Richter-scale earthquakes only 10 kilometres from Astravyets.

The Neris water will be used

The site selected for the Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant implies that water from the River Neris will be used for cooling its reactors. In this context, Lithuania underlines that there is no legislation on the use and protection of water bodies of the Nemunas basin.

The MFA Statement runs, “Lithuania is calling upon Belarus to sign, as soon as possible, the technical protocol for cooperation on the management of the River Nemunas basin and responsible use of the waters of the basin which has been coordinated since 2009”.

Russian loan and start of the construction

Having learnt about Belarus’ plans, on 22 June 2009, President Vladimir Putin mentioned a possibility of financial support for the construction of the Astravyets N-plant. In about a year’s time the then Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius went to Astravyets and said that Belarus had not convinced him of the seriousness of its plans. However, on 25 March 2010, Justas Vincas Paleckis, Member of the European Parliament, sent one of the first signals of concern. In his comment for DELFI, he drew attention to the Astravyets project by highlighting at least two worrying reasons.

First, the Neris may be polluted with radioactive substances. Second, a Russian unit that is being constructed in Europe has not been tested yet,” he warned.

Justas Paleckis also considered what possible ways of action Lithuania might take for speaking out and defending its interests.

“By rallying, gathering signatures, publishing denouncing petitions and declarations, or conducting business-like negotiations, creating a more favourable environment for relations between the two neighbouring states. The first option is more effective, noisier, more customary to us, and more attractive to many. And the advantage of the second one is that it may give better results,” he wrote.

In its turn, Belarus wasted no time and on 11 October 2011 signed an agreement with “Atomstroieksport”, a subsidiary of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation “Rosatom”, on the construction of two units of the Astravyets N-plant. The next piece of information was about the Russian loan of USD 10 billion for the construction of the N-plant.

President Aliaksandr Lukashenka was trying to convince Belarus’ population of the benefits of the project. “Astravyets will become the most advanced town. A nuclear power plant is the same as space technologies. It’s high-tech. We will build the highest-level power plant in the world,” he said to reporters at a press conference.

On 9 August 2012 Aliaksandr Lukashenka participated in the ceremony of laying a time-capsule for future generations in the construction site of the power plant.

That’s how construction works started and continued despite Artūras Zuokas‘, Mayor of Vilnius, trip to Belarus where he expected to dissuade the Mayor of Astravyets from a N-plant.

Public sneer

Lithuania started complaining about Belarus having not answered a lot of questions that had arisen concerning the safety of the Astravyets N-plant in 2013. On 15 October, a piece of information came out saying that the EIA of the Astravyets N-plant in the Lithuanian language, submitted for public consideration, was unintelligible. The document, meant to present the Belarusian plans to Lithuanian society, was full of spelling and language mistakes, moreover, the translation seemed to have been done with the help of “Google Translate”.

For instance, “That is a perfect prevovania also took note of new has commissioned plants VVER-1000 and its analogues that Uzbek projects, for nuclear power plant (AE 91, 92 nuclear power plants and power plants 91/99) is built and is being built (Novovoronezh AE-2 unit number 5 Balakov AE AE “Kudankulam” in India”, Tianwan” in China “Belene” in Bulgaria “Busher” in Iran)”.

The Astravyets project reached the above-ground stage of construction on 2 September 2014.

Lithuanians begin to realise

Aliaksandr Lukashenka boasted in 2015 that construction works at the Astravyets N-plant were proceeding strictly according to the schedule.

In their turn, Lithuanian politicians took increasingly harsh positions. At first the then Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius loudly said that Lithuania wouldn’t buy electric power generated in the Astravyets N-plant, then we heard that Belarusians would not be allowed to use the Kruonis Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Power Plant as a reserve. While on 11 December 2015, the then Minister of Energy Rokas Masiulis still doubted whether the Astravyets N-plant could be built.

“Some opponents say that it will certainly be built, that all is going on well there. Other specialists say this cannot be the case. I’d say we, in Lithuania, must do all in our power to make sure that if it were built, it would comply with international standards, and in case the standards are violated, it must not be built. So far it is not being built in compliance with the international standards, and that is why we very clearly and strictly say that this is not acceptable and we must take every measure, such as raising the issue at international organisations and demanding explanations. If we don’t succeed, we might talk to our neighbours Latvians and Estonians and consolidate a unified approach to this power plant and look for ways to restrict electricity, produced in this unsafe power plant, from getting into Lithuania,” he said to the news agency BNS.

Incidents on the construction site

To the knowledge of the MFA, there were as many as six incidents on the construction site of the Astravyets N-plant in 2016. “During two of these incidents (on 10 July 2016 and 26 December 2016) two reactor vessels produced by the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation “Rosatom” were damaged. Having regard to the fact that a reactor vessel is one of the key safety components of a nuclear power plant, Lithuania holds a firm position that the reactor vessels damaged during the incidents are unsuitable and should be replaced,” the Ministry Statement says.

The MFA believes that the incidents show that the Belarus nuclear safety regulator does not meet the criteria of independence and competence and is managed by “Rosatom”. “The incidents in the Astravets NPP demonstrate that the project developers are challenged by systemic problems, such as poor occupational safety culture, failure to ensure high quality control of works, non-compliance with instructions; principles of withholding and denying information rather than those of openness and transparency dominate public communication,” the Statement runs.

After the first incidents, Lukashenka publicly said that the incidents happened “during training time”. “Some claim that ‘a reactor fell down in the Belarusian nuclear power plant’. Open your eyes, there is no reactor there, there is a metal frame, a 20 centimetres-thick ‘barrel’, where a reactor will be put later,” the President explained to Belarus news agency “Belta”.

President Lukashenka assured that he was personally monitoring the construction process. “Forget those several incidents. If a piece of wall fell off, they would announce it to the whole world,” he added.

On 4 August, Aliaksandr Lukashenka commented that Belarus and Lithuania should think about running the Astravyets N-plant together. He went as far as mentioning that the plant was inviting the former staff of the Ignalina NPP. “We are taking in people, who lost their jobs after the NPP was closed. We invite them to come and work for us. We’ll treat them as our own,” he said.

The head of public relations in the Ignalina NPP Natalija Survila-Glebova informed DELFI that she had no official information about any cases of Ignalina staff leaving or employment in the Astravyets NPP.

“The statements are probably false taking into consideration the average age (53) of the Ignalina NPP staff, and people, who are of retirement or pre-retirement age, leave the plant under the Law on Additional Employment and Social Guarantees for the Employees of the State Enterprise Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. As much as we know, young specialists, who have left the INPP are employed in Lithuania or England, Norway, Germany, Turkey,” she explained.

Elections and afterwards

Resistance to the Astravyets N-plant was the core of the Conservatives’ parliamentary election campaign in 2016. There was also a battle of statements as to who should take responsibility for failing to stop the construction.

For example, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius said that the appeal by former leaders and three political parties concerning the N-plant under construction in Belarus should be addressed to the former Government as the construction had begun in 2009. “I can equally reasonably approach the former Government; the Astravyets site was selected and works started seven years ago, and they are well under way now,” he commented.

Gediminas Kirkilas’ response was that it was not the first Conservatives’ attempt to blame the incumbent Government for the construction of the nuclear power plant in Lithuania’s neighbourhood. He wrote, “Claims that Butkevičius’ Government ‘helps the Astravyets N-plant construction’ and does nothing to stop the construction of a geopolitical, ecological and energy monster close to Lithuania are groundless”.

In the middle of the year, Gabrielius Landsbergis spoke of having gathered almost 65 thousand signatures of Lithuanian citizens against the Astravyets N-plant. “It’s true that there’s no point in waiting helplessly for supporters from abroad. No big and severe punisher will come and forbid Aliaksandr to play in a sandbox. What we must do first is show that we do not agree to the Astravyets N-plant project. We must show it in an assertive way so that those, who conceived the project in Minsk, would realise that Lithuania is not going to comply with disregard of its opinion and is taking measures,” he wrote.

Later, having won the parliamentary election, Ramūnas Karbauskis said he was against the Astravyets N-plant. “That project which is dangerous to Lithuanian – the Astravyets project – is a purely political one,” he said.

Preparations for embargo

The construction of the Astravyets N-plant reached its final stage in 2017, and Lithuania decided not to purchase electric power generated there. On 7 June the Government released a statement that, because of its geographic location, the Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant poses threat to Lithuania’s national security, environment and public health. On the same day, Minister of Energy Žygimantas Vaičiūnas announced that, after the Seimas had recognised the Astravyets N-plant a threat to Lithuanian national security, Lithuania could start preparations for the embargo of Belarusian electricity.

“The consequence is this, I propose to establish such recognition in a law and then within three months prepare a list of concrete measures for protection from this threat,” Minister Vaičiūnas said to BNS.

On 22 June 2017, a group of members of the Seimas registered a resolution which invited Estonian, Latvian and Polish parliamentarians to adopt legislation that would prevent electric power generated in unsafe nuclear power plants from getting into the electricity systems of the Baltic countries and Poland.

“Last summer we gathered citizens’ signatures in support of the initiative to pass a law forbidding supply of electric power generated in Astravyets and other unsafe power plants to the Lithuanian market. This initiative took the form of a law endorsed by the Seimas not long ago. We must take another step today and, by making use of all diplomatic means, consolidate our closest allies for fight against the construction that poses threat to the security of the whole region. The Seimas needs to play a particular role in raising the issue on an international level, make direct contacts to parliamentarians in other countries, who decide on the direction of their countries’ foreign policy and vote for similar laws,” said Member of the Seimas Žygimantas Pavilionis in his comment on the resolution.

Please find more information about the specificity of nuclear energy and the reactors to be installed in the Astravyets N-plant, about possible threats to the Lithuanian population and the latter’s opinion of the Belarus projects in subsequent parts of our project “Astravyets. A Monster Nearby”.

About Edgaras Savickas 24 Articles
Ekonomikos teorija ir istorija – sritys, kuriomis itin susidomėjau dar studijų Vilniaus universitete metu. Šias žinias kasdien stengiuosi pritaikyti dirbdamas DELFI. Nagrinėdamas makroekonomikos, finansų, socialinės politikos ir kitas verslo temas visada siekiu laikytis pliuralizmo bei objektyvumo principų. Manau, kad laisva žiniasklaida yra vienas pamatinių demokratinės valstybės akmenų, o žurnalistai – tokios santvarkos gynėjai bei puoselėtojai.
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