Belarus to break ground on its new nuclear plant, despite criticism from the Espoo Convention

ingressimage_most6-sm.JPG Photo: Andrey Ozharovsky

Despite this, Belarus and Russia have already announced that they will sign an inter-governmental agreement of cooperation on the construction of the Belarusian nuclear station this month, and that in September, the will break ground. Can the Espoo Implementation Committee stop the project? Legal commentators say it should,

Committee finally declares Belarusina violation and gives recommendations

The implementation Committee for Espoo opened a review of Belarus and the planned nuclear power plant in 2009 that was spurred by a complaint filed by the Urkainina environmental organization Ekoklub.

The Committee’s correspondence with the Belarusian Ministry of Natural Resources took about a year, and it was only at its January 20th session in Geneva that the Committee issued its findings of a violation against Belarus, and issued recommendations.

Experts with Ekoklub provided Bellona Web with a letter that they received from the Secretariat of the Espoo Convention, which stated that the Committed expresses is concern that the “preliminary and final documentation of the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Belarusian NPP differed significantly,” and it also considered that the reason for these different versions “could be  a reflection of more general systematic discords between the Convention and environmental assessment in the framework of state environmental expertises”

The Committee recommended that Belarus provide its neighboring countries with complete documentation on the environmental impact assessment and give them adequate time for commentary. This must be done prior to a final decision on the construction of Belarus NPP.

These and other issues, as the letter from the Espoo secretariat explained, are considered by the Committee to be indispensible for discussion with Belarusian representatives at the Committee’s closed meeting in June 2011 in Geneva. Belarus has until the end this month to respond about whether it is ready for such a meeting.

Six difference versions for Belarus NPP EIA

 

According to specialists on the Public Environmental Expertise for Belarus NPP, the remarks of the committee about the existing differences between the first and last versions of the EIA are not all together correct.

“At minimum, we counted six differing version of the EIA for Belarus NPP,” said Yury Voronezhtsev, an expert on the Public Environmental Expertise for Belarus NPP and a PhD candidate in technical sciences. “such an abundance of variations of the same document is disorienting and uninformative. Moreover, Belarusians and those who live in affected countries information about Belarus NPP that was different in volume and content, which is a violation of the Espoo Convention.”

In accordance with Espoo, the public of the affected countries must be afforded the opportunity to take part in environmental impact assessment procedures, and an equal opportunity to that which is provided to the public in Belarus. But experts and representatives of the affected countries – which include Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Austria and Ukraine – did not see the 3,500page version of the EIA that their Belarusian counterparts had access to. 

The first time the 3,500 page version of the EIA was presented at public hearings in the town of Ostovets, where the NPP will be built, was in October 2009. At that time, representatives of Belarusian civil society groups were surprised that over the course of the several months they studied and discussed a 131-page document that it turned out to be nothing but excerpts from the full version of the EIA.

Neighboring countries were provided with an English translation of a Cliff’s Notes version of the conclusions of the EIA, which differed from the text of the same name in Russian. Aside from the 131-page version of the EIA, there is also an even shorter one published for newspapers.

At first glance, it could be assumed that Belarus, which is not sufficiently schooled in the application the Espoo Convention, simply let slip a number of technical mistakes while wishing to do its best. But actually, there is an effort to manipulate and hide correct information that stands behind the scuttlebutt of the numerous versions of the EIA.

 

What Belarus wants its neighbors to know about its NPP

Experts from the Commission on the Public Environmental Expertise for Belarus NPP participated in all public discussions of the EIA of the NPP in affected countries, specifically in Lithuania, Ukrain and Austria. They noted significant differences in the documentation supplied to neighboring countries and in the English translation from those documents that Belarusian environmental were able to view.

Manipulation of available information

That manipulation has occurred is witnessed by the commentary to Bellona Web contributor Tatyana Novikova by the executive secretary of the Public Environmental Expertise.

“In Ukraine we first saw the presentation to our official delegation, in which it was stated that one possible accident at Belarus NPP could lead to consequences for a significant portion of the Belarusian agricultural cycle. But the territory of Ukraine, in the opion of those delivering the report, should not be affected. And to the contrary, where information that bore witness to the dangers Ostrovets NPP  to neighboring countries, there was nothing provided. So the Lithuanians received none of the data in the EIA documents that Belorusian experts saw attesting that the site has not been sufficiently researched,” said the executive secretary.

And not even the 3,500 page verion of the EIA contains documents on large scale accidents or maps of possible radioactive contamination for big cities or regional centres. Apparently, the developers decided to create the impression of safety by scrubbing these maps of populated areas.

Ground breaking scheduled for September

Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom and Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail  Myasnikovich planned to break ground on the NPP in September, even though “no official decision has yet been made.”

The official representatives committed to the construction of the Belarus NPP obdurately do not wish to confess to the fact that violations of the Espoo Convention occurred, and resort to hair-spitting and absurd justifications.

One such smokescreen thrown up by Belarusian officials is to say that ‘no official decision has been made” about building Belaruss NPP. This was the party line delivered by the Belarusian Ministry of Natural Resources in September last year at a meeting of the Committee of the Aarhus Convention in Geneva, where violations relative to the Ostovets NPP were also noted.

And now the Implementation Committee for the Espoo Convention is recommending that Belarus provide its neighbors with a complete EIA “for the adoption of a decision” to move ahead with the build. All the while the press is filled with reports that work has been underway on the Ostrovets site for two years and announcements that the work tempo on the NPP will be ratcheted up.

As such, Myasnikovich and Kiriyenko on January 25 announced that they are counting on the end of February or the beginning of March as timeframe in which they will sign off on their inter-government agreement on cooperation on construction of the Belarus NPP.

Myasnikovich and Kiriyenko signed the 25th a work schedule for preparing the general contractors as well as a formulation for the cost of the plant. Kiriyenko then announced that ground breaking on the new NPP would be in September, according to RIA Novosti.

Consultations with neighboring countries crash

Belarus has not formally conclude its consultations with the affected countries, however representative of the official contact group on the NPP say otherwise.

But this procedure is only considered closed when the party planning the installation with potential environmental impact on other countries has sent these countries its “final decision.” This document has still not been received by any of the involved nations.

Lithuania has been waiting for answers to its questions on the location of Ostrovets NPP – which will be 45 kilometres from its capital, Vilnius – since summer of last year.

But there may be a method to the madness: So long as consultations remain ongoing, then Belarus must remain at a planning stage, and refrain from building its dangerous installation. Belarus is currently trying to make that impression by simply skimming off soil at the proposed site and building railroad lines and highways and living quarters for the plant workers.

Will the Implementation Committee stop the construction?

 

Andrei Andrushevich, a specialist on the Espoo Convention and a lawyer with the Austria-based European Ecoforum told Bellona Web that the conclusions of the Committee confirm direct violations of the Espoo Convention and should have an impact on the construction of Belarus NPP.

“The Committee recommended Belarus furnish the affected states with the concluded EIA and the opportunity to present their comments. This unconditionally demands a halt to the process of realizing the Belarus NPP project,” Andrushevich said.

Will Belarus go the route of halting its controversial nuclear project and smoothing out realtionships with its neighbors and the Espoo Convention, or will it continue to get money from Russia for the construction of Ostrovets NPP, which is still not even planned in its state budget?

This is a question of development priorities and wha form of the country takes in the eyes of its leaders in the long term perspective. Is a good neighbor is a country with safe and sustainable energy or a financial vampire creating high environmental risks for its own and neighboring populations? The choice between these two incarnations can still be implemented.

Charles Digges