Vilnius redoubles pushback against Belarusian nuclear plant

belarus reactor shell Assembly of the reactor vessel for Ostrovets unit 2 at the manufacturing plant in Russia (Photo: Rosatom)

Lithuania has renewed its long-held opposition to a Russian-built nuclear power plant going up just 50 kilometers from its capitol in neighboring Belarus by passing a law against buying its electricity.

Vilnius has worked to torpedo the project since 2010 over its violations of transnational environmental regulations, and the new legislative move to sap its potential energy markets could land a blow. More recently, the country has fanned out its ambassadors through Europe to inveigh against the project, one of whom, Darius Degutis, recently spoke with Bellona.

Belarus is building two VVER-1200 reactors on a whopping export credit from Russia.

Many in the West, Lithuania among them, see Russia’s ambitions to built nuclear plants abroad as attempt to cast Moscow’s apron strings into the European Union. By fully financing reactor builds, they say, the Kremlin is offering a Faustian bargain: energy independence in exchange for long-term debt and Moscow friendly politics.

ostrovets_from_vilnius The Ostrovets nuclear power plant visible from Vilnius, Lithuania. (Photo: Ari Beser)

The right wing, Moscow-leaning government of Viktor Orban in Hungary is a prime example. The country relies on a Soviet-built nuclear power plant for 50 percent of its electricity, and recently signed a €12 billion deal for a second Russia-built plant. Budapest is also unlikely to pester Moscow over sensitive issues like its proxy war in Ukraine.

Moscow has a habit of conducting foreign policy by choking, then reviving, natural gas supplies to the EU. Disputes between Russia and Ukraine, which remain bitter, led to cuts in Europe’s gas supply from Russia during the winter in 2006 and 2009.

With its new law, Lithuania is attempting to opt out of becoming a hostage to Moscow’s new zero-sum nuclear energy policy.

Officially, the law passed by Lithuania’s parliament in April codifies what the country calls “necessary measures” against dangerous nuclear power plants in third countries, and spells out Vilnius’s refusal to buy energy from any nuclear power plant it considers dangerous to its public and its environment.

But its unambiguous target is Belarus’s Ostrovets nuclear plant, whose builders recently made headlines by dropping a 330 ton reactor pressure vessel, which houses the core, and by accidentally running another one into a cement column during transport.

Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom replaced the dropped unit, and officials in Belarus have said the Ostrovets plant is cruising toward its 2020 opening date despite the clumsiness.

To Degutis, the accident-prone nature of the Ostrovets site is just one of many concerns. Others are the selection of the site to begin with. Of more than 20 areas surveyed in the 1990s to host the plant, the one chosen was among the four least desirable from Lithuania’s point of view. Indeed, the plant is actually visible from the Lithuanian capital on a clear day.

ostrovets-under-construction The slow construction of the Ostrovets nuclear power plant. (Photo courtesy of the Lithuanian government)

Such proximity issues, Lithuania has said for years, are a clear violation of the Espoo Convention against trans-border pollution and environmental hazards.

And there are other violations. For instance, Belarus has failed to provide ecological documentation on the plant, which would allow for an accurate assessment of the environmental dangers it may pose. For its part, Lithuania has said it would need a countrywide evacuation plan in the event of an accident.

But targeting the potential customer base for Ostrovets seems to follow the lessons offered by other flailing nuclear power plants in the Baltic Region that in recent years have been starved of interested consumers.

Russia’s plans for a nuclear plant in its Kaliningrad enclave have been quietly shelved over an acute lack of countries that would buy its power. Poland, for instance, publicly declared in 2011 that it wouldn’t invest in Baltic Nuclear plant because it didn’t want to buy its power.

Lithuania’s own plans for a nuclear power plant have taken a more tortured route. Since 2009, the country has been discussing the Visaginas plant to replace the Soviet-built Ignalina nuclear station. In 2012, after Fukushima, Visaginas became the subject of a polarized debate over the country’s energy independence, and former Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius came to power pledging to stop the plant from proceeding.

Ironically, during the early discussion around Visaginas, Belarus leveled claims against Lithuania for itself violating the Espoo Convention.

The plant had a hard time drawing investors until Japan’s Hitachi offered to bankroll the project after Poland had, as in Kaliningrad, backed out of financing the project. But Hitachi has failed to move the plant forward ever since, and it, too, has quietly receded as a priority.

While Lithuania’s new law will force the question of dwindling customers for Ostrovets, Vilnius will again push its claims that Belarus is violating the Espoo Convention at a meeting of the agreements signatories to be held next month, oddly enough in Minsk.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no