Russia dodges international responsibility for Baltic NPP

Galina Raguzina

Publish date: August 11, 2009

Written by: Galina Raguzina

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

KALININGRAD – The recently published preliminary version of the state-mandated environmental impact study for a new nuclear power plant Russia wants to build just 12 kilometres off its European Union border makes a glaring omission of what impact the project may have on Russia’s closest neighbours.

Concerns about whether the new site – dubbed preliminarily Baltic Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) and planned to be built in the Neman Region near Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave bordered by Lithuania and Poland, with Belarus just off to the east – will bring environmental risks to Russia’s European Union neighbours have been brought up repeatedly, including in an earlier inquiry sent to the site’s future operator, the Russian concern Energoatom, by the Moscow-based ecological group Ecodefense.

Ecodefense’s inquiry was prompted by the technical design assignment preceding the compilation of the environmental impact report, and in a statement made in response to that inquiry, Energoatom’s design and development branch stated: “The environmental impact study will reflect the issues of potential transborder impact that the construction and operation of Reactor Blocks 1 and 2 of the Baltic NPP may have.”

Russia’s nuclear authorities are well expected by law to see to it that such issues be at least considered when planning a project as significant as a new energy site. As states one of the governing documents on the subject, “Regulation on environmental impact assessment of economic and other activities” of May 16, 2000, in where “economic or other activities may have cross-border impact, conducting studies and preparing materials with respect to environmental impact assessments is done in accordance with the [UN’s Economic Commission for Europe’s] Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context” – or the so-called Espoo Convention, signed in Finland in 1991.  

The Espoo Convention – of which Russia is a signatory, though it has yet to ratify the agreement – dictates that the country initiating an industrial project with potentially detrimental consequences for neighbouring states (and nuclear power plants are included in the list of operations with implied risks of harmful cross-border environmental impact) must afford both its community and those of surrounding states equal rights to participate in a study estimating such risks.

However, no mention of any transborder impact has been made in the preliminary environmental impact assessment done on the Baltic NPP project. Meanwhile, Rosatom is hoping to obtain a construction license for the Baltic NPP before the end of the year, even though no official go-ahead has yet been issued by the federal government and any quality discussions are likewise yet to take place between Russia and its European neighbours to settle any worries the project has generated abroad.

Legitimate expectations…
At a public hearing organised in late July by the state nuclear corporation Rosatom in Neman in Kaliningrad Region, these worries were again addressed by environmentalists from Lithuania and Belarus. The ecologists asked Rosatom representatives to conduct a transborder risks study, inform the governments and the public of Russia’s neighbouring states of Rosatom’s plans, and start proper international proceedings in compliance with the Espoo document.  

“Even though one may be convinced, hearing all that has been said here, that having the Baltic NPP is going to be just like life at a spa resort, a nuclear power plant is still not a spa resort,” said Linas Vainius of the Lithuanian Green Movement, a coalition uniting Lithuanian environmental groups. “We live just across the river Neman and would like to have the opportunity to take part in discussing the project and to have our opinion taken into account.”

Tatiana Novikova, a journalist from Belarus and member of the Belarusian Green Network, said at the hearing: “It is disturbing, the fact that people are so disparaging of Chernobyl. Our children get sick, and our children’s children; this is a lesson that has to be taken into consideration before making the decision of building another NPP.”

“You will find jobs now, but think about your children and think about the children of those Belarusians who have already suffered,” was Novikova’s plea to the Neman residents present at the hearing. Both official reports delivered at the hearing and statements made by some of the public participants had indicated that the promise of new jobs flaunted by the Baltic NPP project was creating a hopeful, if artificially stoked, buzz among the local population.  

“Equally disturbing is the document called ‘Environmental Impact Study,’ because it says that all of the harmful impact, even in the case of a grave accident, will be limited within the radius of 800 metres. This document is not right, it needs further work, and a new document is also needed in line with the Espoo Convention,” Novikova added.

…and fickle responses

The fact that Russia has signed, but not ratified the Espoo Convention, provides an effective loophole for Rosatom to be able to ignore the oblique language of the 2000 regulation and evade distinct international proceedings dictated by the Espoo Convention, creating in their place a decorum of noncommittal invitations to public hearings issued to foreign diplomatic missions based in Kaliningrad.
Responding to Vainius’ statement at the hearing, Deputy Premier of Kaliningrad Region Yury Shalimov countered that the construction plans had been discussed by the Russian-Lithuanian Council, which includes members of the regional government and those of the Lithuanian government, in particular, deputy head of the Lithuanian foreign ministry, Evaldas Ignatavichus.

Yet the international discussion demanded by both environmentalists and the procedures of the Espoo Convention imply a different scope and a different level of involvement. The Espoo agreement stipulates precisely the entities that have the responsibility for addressing issues of cross-border environmental risks: the ministry of environment from the country initiating a potentially harmful project and those of the impacted states.
To be sure, Kaliningrad regional government does take heed of this. According to information obtained by Bellona Web, requests for information received by Kaliningrad officials from Lithuania and Poland just prior to the public hearing were forward-mailed to Moscow because, officials explained, a nuclear power plant was a site of federal jurisdiction.
Moscow, however, seems to drag its feet where it concerns obliging its neighbours with information.

Last June, environmentalists from a range of countries of the Baltic Sea basin urged their governments to ask Russia to start international talks on the Baltic NPP project just as the Espoo Convention prescribes. Requests then followed from officials in Lithuania and Latvia to the Russian government, Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology, project developers behind the Baltic NPP, Energoatom, and the government of Kaliningrad Region, to extend to all impacted parties a proper notification of the project. As of early July, Lithuania and Latvia had to tell their citizens that no official information on the project had yet been received from Russia.

According to remarks made by Energoatom’s Deputy General Director Sergei Boyarkin at the public hearings in Neman in late July, “the project owner has extended all information prescribed by the Espoo Convention to all neighbouring states.”

One has to assume this already happened after requests for information started pouring in.

“When these public hearings have concluded, all of the comments we have heard in this room and also sent in written form will be incorporated into the environmental impact report, and the amended version of the report will be forwarded to neighbouring states,” Boyarkin said. “And also invitations for consultations will be sent to these states in full compliance with the Espoo Convention. So yes, we are observing all of the regulations of the Espoo Convention.”

Those regulations, however, make it clear that countries impacted by a major industrial project must be made informed of it no later and in no smaller degree than the public of the state that originates the project.

How hard is the Espoo bear?
Having signed the Espoo Convention, Russia, though not an official party to the agreement, has nonetheless voluntarily assumed the obligation to observe it, provided that its stipulations do not contradict Russia’s national legislation.

And as previous experience shows, nothing in the Russian legislation seems to contradict the Espoo requirements.

When international consultations took place two years ago on the environmentally controversial Nord Stream project – a gas pipeline planned to be laid across the bed of the Baltic Sea – the proceedings involved as many as nine participant states from the region and became the first successful precedent of using the Espoo guidelines in Russia.  
Russia could, too, return the courtesy extended to it by Finland, Lithuania, and Belarus in similar situations. These states have all sent Moscow official notices to the start of nuclear power plant projects on their territories. Project documentation – including Russian translations – has been posted online to give the Russian public open access to the information.

True, Moscow is not exactly jumping through hoops to indulge its own public, either. Rosatom has provided altogether one single copy of the Baltic NPP environmental impact report to Neman residents prior to the hearing.

Galina Raguzina of Ecodefence is a regulars contributor to Belllona Web.