Ticking bomb in Astravyets – will it blow us up or the Belarussian economy?

Building site of the Astravyets Nuclear site
Ramūnas Bogdanas

Lithuanian politicians call the Astravyets nuclear power plant a bomb ticking at the border, making for an impression that it is being built for a future accident which would harm Lithuania, though Belarussian citizens would experience no less harm. Independent analyst Rytas Staselis notes, however, that moods in Minsk are shifting, it is likely that thoughts are appearing of why the power plant may become too much of a burden.

The Special Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) Representative for questions of the Astravyets NPP Dainius Kreivys spoke during the LRT Radio show LRT Aktualijų Studija and claimed that the Astravyets NPP is a political project and the location of the power plant being next to the Lithuanian border is in order to place a ticking bomb there.

“From the choice of location to the interest Belarus pays for its loan – the interest is in the tens of percent. The project is lifeless to begin with, Belarus has no way of competing in the market without selling electricity at prices below production cost. Furthermore the Poles have clearly stated that if we do not block off electricity supply through Belarus, we can forget about synchronisation.

The location chosen in Belarus was number 17 in the list of 25. The location was specifically chosen so as to be next to us and be a ticking bomb. We know the work culture, the level of technology, how the reactors fell several times now, so it is really difficult to speak of any sort of security in this nuclear power plant. Furthermore we already have the example of Chernobyl, other incidents occurring in Russia. This causes great fear and I believe the government sees these things correctly and is making the right decisions,” D. Kreivys stated.

Not secure, but no-one wishes for an accident

Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science (VU TSPMI) lecturer Vytis Jurkonis notes that the conspiracy theory that the Astravyets NPP is being constructed as a ticking bomb is denied by the fact that Astravyets was not the only option for constructing a nuclear power plant.

“To my knowledge four potential locations were being considered up to 2008 – Kukshinovskaya, Kranopolyanskaya, Astravyets and Verchniadzivinsk. Two of them are closer to Russia, one – closer to Latvia and only Astravyets is at the Lithuanian border. This was reported by the independent Belarussian media and to my memory the citizens of the town of Horki actively opposed construction of a nuclear power plant next to their town.

It would be insane to think that Astravyets NPP was chosen to intentionally threaten through potential accidents and diversions. However the version that Astravyets NPP could have been chosen as a potential wedge to active Lithuanian energy policy and an alternative to Visaginas NPP, is plausible,” the political scientist notes.

R. Staselis states he is certain that the Astravyets NPP is a political project. This is evidenced by the lack of an economical basis and the circumstances behind the project, however he does not believe that it would seek ecological harm to neighbouring Lithuania.

“Is it a political project? Certainly. Keeping in mind that it appeared in 2009 when Lithuania announced plans to construct a NPP in Visaginas, the Russians and Belarussians then announced the Kaliningrad and Astravyets power plants.

At one time Vladimir Zhirinovsky stated that nuclear waste burial grounds should be built next to the Baltic States’ borders and build a massive fan to blow the radioactive waste this way. I do not truly believe such things. Yes, there is geopolitics, but I am sceptical about the thought that there are intentions to cause ecological harm. The technology itself, from what the information provided by experts suggests, is safe and certified, the Finnish are building a power plant with the Russians based on the same technology. However it is a question of how the plant is built and it is definitely not being built up to European standards,” R. Staselis said.

Minsk starting to realise the plant could become an unsustainable burden?

R. Staselis compares the situation of the two power plants planned in the neighbourhood. Both started as political projects when Russian and Belarus found out about the Visaginas NPP idea, however the story of the Kaliningrad plant is rather different to that of the Belarussian one.

“When policy ends, things conclude as they did in Kaliningrad. When you open the business plan of the Kaliningrad power plant, you can find information on who, according to them, will consume this electricity. It was planned that two of the planned reactors will supply electricity in excess of the demand of Kaliningrad Oblast, the electricity would be transferred to Lithuania through modernised electricity networks, exported to Sweden through the NordBalt link, and to Estonia, Latvia and Finland through EstLink and when the link between Lithuania and Poland is completed, electricity was to be exported to Poland. They thought they could use our infrastructure to reach all surrounding markets, however failing to obtain access to our infrastructure, the construction was frozen.

There is very little information about what is happening in Astravyets. When the world was struck with crisis in 2009, Aleksandr Lukashenko found the opportunity to receive a USD 10 billion credit from Russia to create work places in one of its regions. Most likely A. Lukashenko did not think about anything else, any business plan, as to where they will put the electricity produced. It was all presented as the construction of the century and Russia chose the location next to Lithuania, close to high voltage lines,” the expert explained.

Staselis notes that A. Lukashenko’s interest was clear five years ago, but the Belarussian President’s moods appear to be changing. In a recent press conference Lukashenko announced that the power plant is being built by Russia and he has no part in it.

“Is he saying so because he currently has to talk this way or because problems and questions on how to sell the electricity are appearing, it is hard to say. However it is likely that the Belarussians are starting to think what to do because when asked if they can produce electricity at a lower cost than the price in the Nord Pool Spot energy exchange, they do not answer.

In my opinion their production costs for electricity should reach around 70 eur/MWh (the largest price in the Nord Pool Spot exchange reaches 50 eur/MWh – LRT.lt), thus they would either have to subsidise the price or increase prices for their consumers or tax payers, or the Russians. But there is no agreement on this,” Staselis says.

Methods to halt construction are realistic, but some are rather dangerous

Specifically the significant burden of maintaining Astravyets NPP could become a major factor contributing to the cessation of construction say both R. Staselis and V. Jurkonis. Lithuania can also have an impact through legislative decisions.

“One method to prevent or obstruct the construction project is to not permit so called commercial electricity flows into Lithuania. For example if legislation was passed to ban the passage and import of electricity from dirty and unsafe plants, Litgrid could physically disconnect the links to Belarus or set zero permeability for power plants from this country. Several days ago a report appeared that the operator of the Polish system received an official permission to limit electricity import from Lithuania and Sweden, thus it may be difficult, but it is doable.

The Belarussians’ problem is to ensure that someone will purchase their electricity because when the reactor begins operating, it cannot be simply disconnected. However the company will be unable to obtain any subsidies from any business in order to subsidise the price by half or more. Thus every destructive measure in their regard, whether it be not buying their electricity or not transferring it, all of it will be excellent measures,” R. Staselis commented.

That said he notes that it would be a dangerous move to play with energy infrastructure, particularly nuclear because by limiting physical flows from a power plant by your own borders, premises for insecurity are created. “There are a million various nuances, politicians often speak of those that suit them. However it must be clear that it is a problem and there is need for consensus on this matter and no politician can think they can “get ahead”, visit A. Lukashenko and sell our market,” he said.

According to V. Jurkonis, the key question is actually whether this Belarussian adventure will be economically beneficial, thus (non)cooperation from neighbouring states is one of the core factors. If Lithuania bars access to its infrastructure, if the Poles view the project with reservation, Minsk will face many challenges.

“Another no less important and not mentioned in Belarus question is that of nuclear power plant closure. It is after all massive sums of money, Lithuania knows this from the story of the Ignalina NPP. Of course official Minsk cares about the start of the NPP more right now, but it is intentionally silent about the question of future economic burdens after the power plant’s closure because it will no longer be A. Lukashenko’s issue.

However beyond this we have to also appeal to international institutions, particularly those which can indirectly finance this project (for example the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). Of course Belarus is an authoritarian state, it is not accountable to either its people or international commitments, thus international resolutions and bilateral efforts will have limited impact if political will in Moscow and Minsk remains strong,” V. Jurkonis notes.

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