Lithuania takes long-boiling ire over Belarusian nuke plant to international arbiter

Publish date: September 1, 2011

Written by: Tatyana Novikova

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

After two years of fruitless talks with its eastern neighbour, Lithuania has finally brought its complaint over Belarus’s building a nuclear power plant (NPP) right on its doorstep to the authority that enforces the Espoo Convention – an international agreement covering industrial projects that may potentially bring environmental harm across state borders. Both Lithuania and Belarus are Espoo signatories, but Belarus denies any violations and threatens a retaliatory complaint over Lithuania’s own NPP project. With the two countries attacking one another’s project’s safety claims, at least one clear conclusion emerges from the conflict: What nuclear technologies are capable of generating besides power is serious safety concerns.

Lithuania to Belarus: Move the NPP away from our capital and comply with the Espoo regulations!

The UN’s Economic Commission for Europe’s Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context – or the Espoo Convention, called so because it was signed in the Finnish town of Espoo in 1991 – is the main international legal act serving as the basis for evaluations of transboundary ecological risks carried by this or that industrial project implemented in an individual country.

Using the provisions of this document, Lithuania was trying to negotiate with Belarus the best advisable location for Belarus’s controversial nuclear power plant project, a first that this Eastern European state is attempting to the dismay of many among its own population and criticism on the part of environmentalists and a number of European governments. Belarus intends to build its plant with Russia’s help in a town of Ostrovets, in Grodno Region – only a handful of kilometres away from the European border and Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius.

Fed up with two years of futile talks insisting that Belarus move its construction site away from the Lithuanian border and produce full and truthful information about the potential impact the plant may have on Lithuania’s environment and population health, Vilnius finally submitted a complaint to the Committee for the Implementation of the Espoo Convention. The complaint was sent on June 7.   

Lithuania’s seven-page statement requests that the Implementation Committee and the Espoo Secretariat apply their mandate to convince Belarus to do two things, both of principal significance: Commission a new environmental impact assessment (EIA) study that could provide a more objective evaluation of the plant’s potential risks and dangers, and find another site for the NPP’s construction.

Environmental risks

The existing EIA document, compiled by official Belarus, has been the subject of vigorous criticism by Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Russian environmentalists, who say the document downplays considerably the harm it could inflict on the region’s environment and population.

Stating its displeasure over Belarus’s choice of location, Lithuania forwards a number of hefty arguments. One is that Ostrovets is only 50 kilometres away from downtown Vilnius. In an official note sent to Belarus via diplomatic channels last autumn, Lithuania wrote that Belarus’s decision to build such a site in such close proximity to the Lithuanian capital undermined the very foundations of Lithuania’s national security: Should a severe accident occur at the new NPP, followed by a massive discharge of radioactive substances, Lithuania will be forced to evacuate all of its governing bodies and institutions.

Vilnius is also the largest Lithuanian city and the estimated toll that a forced evacuation would take on its inhabitants and the country may well be worth the concern.

The Lithuanians also cite in their complaint the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) fourth safety principle (see IAEA’s Fundamental Safety Principles, SF-1, 2006), which stipulates that “for facilities and activities to be considered justified, the benefits that they yield must outweigh the radiation risks to which they give rise.”

Lithuania also refers to the estimations done by researchers from its Institute of Physics (now, Centre for Physical Sciences and Technology) in their 2010 Expert Evaluation of the Nuclear Power Plant in Belarus (Annex 5), which show that an adverse event arising from a range of accident scenarios at the NPP would, under unfavourable circumstances, subject the health of the population of Vilnius and neighbouring territories to a real and unacceptable threat.

“Construction of a nuclear power plant at such a close distance from Vilnius, the largest city of the Republic of Lithuania and its capital, would pose an unjustifiable high risk […] to Lithuania,” the complaint reads.

Another argument that Lithuania is using against the current choice of the future NPP’s location is that the water the plant will be drawing to cool its reactors will be from the river Neris. The Neris, which is called Vilia in Belarus, is the second largest river in Lithuania and flows through Vilnius. Lithuania is understandably concerned over the potential environmental damage the river may be subjected to during the plant’s operation, including not just the thermal impact of the service water, but also what Belarus’s official EIA assessment refers to as radioactive and chemical contamination “within allowable limits.”

Procedural violations

But the major part of the Lithuanian complaint is focused on allegations that Belarus has committed a number of violations of the Espoo Convention while pursuing its Ostrovets NPP project. According to the Lithuanians, Belarus did not follow proper procedure when estimating the potential environmental impact of its future plant and has withheld key information about the project from its neighbour.

In particular, the complaint says, Lithuania has not received from Belarus the full version of the EIA study regarding the new station. The materials in question – some three and a half thousand pages – were submitted for a state environmental assessment in Belarus and were also in February 2010 made available, though with significant restrictions applied, to a public commission that sought to conduct an independent environmental evaluation of the project. But Lithuania is still waiting to see these documents, despite having notified Belarus of its wishes.

The Lithuanian complaint now states that by failing to produce the documents, Belarus is violating the Espoo Convention, which stipulates that when initiating an industrial project that may have cross-border impact, the country that starts it – so-called “Party of Origin” – must ensure that the communities of the states that become exposed to potential risks – so-called “Affected Parties” – are all afforded the same opportunities to receive information about and discuss the relevant environmental impact documentation.

[picture1 { The site of the future nuclear power plant in Ostrovets, August 2010.}]

On other point of dispute is the non-receipt by Lithuania of full information on an issue Vilnius considers to be of vital importance – that of the choice of location. In its complaint, Lithuania writes that none of the versions of the official EIA report Minsk has provided to Vilnius contain any detailed exploration of alternative sites.

“[They] fail to provide equal and thorough assessment of locational alternatives, as [they] focus exclusively on the [Ostrovets] site despite the fact that other two alternative sites are mentioned in the [EIA] report (Kukshinovo and Krasnaya Polyana),” the complaint says.

This, too, is a violation of the Espoo agreement, which prescribes that the Affected Parties must be provided with evaluations of alternative locations for a future project and a description of the criteria used by the Party of Origin in making its decision for or against a particular site. Lithuania claims the criteria presented by the Belarusian side lacked clarity and expresses doubt that what research was done by Belarus into other potential location options was done in accordance with IAEA safety requirements as per “Site Evaluation for Nuclear Installations,” NS-R-3, and other international recommendations.

Equivocations about project status and other lies

According to Lithuania’s complaint, Belarus is actually yet to give a clear answer as to which of the many decisions regarding whether or not it will even build the plant has been chosen as the final one, which “causes various misunderstandings and misinterpretations.”

In point of fact, the issue seems to be one Belarus is using to manipulate the whole procedural process, even as construction work has apparently started in Ostrovets – something that hasn’t been lost on its neighbour. Official Minsk has not been shy about using two contradicting versions with regard to the status of its project depending on whether the story is spun for the domestic or international audience. For instance, in September 2010, representatives of the Belarusian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection and Ministry of Energy of Belarus explained to the Compliance Committee of the Aarhus Convention – the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, signed in the Danish city of Aarhus in 1998 – that no affirmative decision on building the NPP had been made. However, back in 2008, Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko had already signed a “final political decision on building the Belarusian NPP,” and by August 2010, the project had passed the stages of state ecological impact evaluation.

[picture2 { As this shot and the one above, part of a series of pictures taken in Ostrovets environs in August 2010 , suggest, preparation of at least accompanying infrastructure, such as access roads, is well in progress at the future site. The sign here reads: “Site Passport. ‘Construction of Nuclear Power Plant in the Republic of Belarus.’ Preparatory Period. Preparation of Construction Site” and lists subcontractor organisations and other information on the site.}]

As international practice dictates, a final decision is such that permits the conduct of activities related to the implementation of a particular project. In that sense, Lukashenko’s “final political decision” is just that kind of document, as it authorised the allocation of budget funds and construction of infrastructure needed for the future NPP.

This also bears significance because, as Lithuania mentions it, it is aware that the submission of a complaint by a Concerned Party “should only be made once the final decision on the activity has been taken.” Lithuania, in other words, is seemingly trapped in a Catch-22 situation with the Ostrovets site, one it can only hope to break out of if it speaks loud and clear of all its concerns regarding its less-than-forthcoming neighbour’s behaviour. 

And so, Lithuania decries it as a violation of the international norms of the Espoo Convention, where it prescribes Party of Origin states first to complete the entire EIA procedure and consultations with Concerned Parties and only then start any work on implementing a project.

The list of Espoo violations that Lithuania accuses Belarus of is furthermore ample in various procedural abuses that were most scandalously revealed during a public hearing on the project in Vilnius and also included what Lithuania charges was repeated falsifications of EIA documents. The Lithuanian public gathered for the Vilnius hearing, in particular, was the most sensitive to the Belarusian delegation’s failure to provide adequate interpreting services at the event and to give any answers to the Lithuanians’ questions regarding the future station’s safety and possible impact on the health of Lithuania’s population and environment.

Yet, though the Vilnius hearing ended in a fiasco, Belarusian officials are now disseminating unfounded information that the final version of the EIA report has been accepted by all concerned parties, Lithuania tells the Espoo secretariat in its complaint. For the past year, the Belarusian government has been feeding reports to its national media outlets that the countries potentially affected by its NPP no longer have any objections to the project and have given their unanimous approval. Lithuania has already expressed vociferously its outrage over these statements in a letter to Minsk. But as of last July, Belarusian Environmental Protection Ministry officials were still trying to flood the internal information market with reports that the NPP project had been approved by all concerned states and ready for take-off.

Belarus denies any transgressions

Belarus’s tactic, for a long time, was to present its NPP project as one in line with all possible requirements of international conventions in force. But environmentalists and the general public both in Belarus and in Russia have made enough efforts to ensure that the numerous violations of ecological rights of Belarusian citizens that have come to light since the project was started not go unnoticed. And ever since the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee found Belarus responsible for violating ecological rights of its citizens in the Ostrovets NPP project, it has become that much more difficult for Minsk to uphold the impeccable image of its nuclear construction push on the international scene. Belarus has accordingly turned its promotional focus inward, directing its various PR resources on the target audiences in Belarus and also Russia, which is building the site.

Not only are Belarusian officials keeping any unsightly truths about the NPP hidden from the broad public at home, but they are also spreading information that can easily be shown to be factually untrue.

One such act of information stovepiping was orchestrated recently by the Environmental Protection Ministry and the National Press Centre at a special-occasion press conference, which took place on July 19 in Minsk and was dedicated to Belarus’s following up on its obligations with regard to international conventions while implementing the Ostrovets NPP project. At the presser, Environmental Protection Ministry officials told journalists that the Aarhus Convention authorities had no objections in the matter of the NPP.

When asked by a radio reporter about the decision that the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee made in Moldova late last June regarding Belarus’s violations in the NPP project, Deputy Environmental Protection Minister Vitaly Kulik said: “There was no such decision regarding the Belarusian nuclear power plant.” A similar assertion was then made by Kulik with regard to the Espoo Convention: “We are doing everything in correspondence with the Espoo Convention. And we are observing all the procedures – notification, hearings, consultations, everything exactly as it should be, and that some additional issues have come up there, we will provide our answers to them.”

What was left out on the margins, however, was that the Compliance Committee of the Aarhus Convention is now in its second year of investigation into violations it has been made aware of in connection with the Ostrovets project based on a complaint filed by a Ukrainian public organisation called Ecoclub. Early this year, the Committee already forwarded its recommendations to Belarus, saying Minsk had allowed breaches of the Convention as it held consultations with other countries regarding its evaluations of the NPP’s environmental impact.

When asked then how neighbouring countries viewed the Belarusian NPP project, Deputy Environmental Protection Minister Kulik said that Latvia, Poland, and Austria had no issues with the project and that Ukraine and Lithuania were the only states to voice their objections. That said, Kulik added, as far as Ukraine, it wasn’t even official Kyiv that the objections came from, but the Ukrainian NGO Ekodom (Ecohome). Besides this simply being untrue, Kulik also managed to unilaterally “move” Ekodom, which is based in Belarus, to Ukraine.

The truth is that at a hearing in Vienna, Austria, in May 2010, where Belarus presented its environmental impact assessment of its new NPP, the EIA report was harshly criticised by the audience. The Belarusian delegation was also handed an expert document – prepared by Austrian specialists upon request from the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment, and Water Management – stating the various issues that Austria had found wanting in the NPP documentation from Minsk.

Belarus threatens retaliation

As it happens, Belarus has its own grievances to air with respect to its western neighbour’s own nuclear plans.

On the eve of 2010, Lithuania pulled the plug on Ignalina NPP in Visaginas, a Soviet-built station with two RBMK-1500 reactors that the European Union stipulated had to be to shut down as a prerequisite to this country’s ascension to the union. But Vilnius is looking to build new reactors in Visaginas to replace Ignalina, something that contributes to an ever tightening diplomatic tangle in a region now trapped in what environmentalists fear is fast becoming a deadly nuclear noose – with Belarus’ Ostrovets, Lithuania’s Visaginas, and Russia’s Baltic NPP, under construction in Kaliningrad Region, all pursued with unrelenting zeal.

And despite the fact that it has been several years since Lithuania completed its own environmental impact assessment procedure, the Visaginas project has, for Belarus, remained a sizable axe to grind – though one that it has only now chosen to make use of. Belarus, while not without grounds for a complaint over its neighbour’s EIA consultations, has kept its resentment to itself until the very moment the Lithuanians decided to take theirs to the Espoo authorities. It was only at the press conference on July 19 in Minsk that the Belarusian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection’s head of department for state environmental impact studies Alexander Andreyev announced Belarus would make sure that the Espoo Secretariat received a counter-complaint from Minsk over the project in Visaginas.

The new NPP, just like its predecessor Ignalina, would be built in the same town of Visaginas, if only at a different site than the old station. As such, it will be located near the Lithuanian-Belarusian border and, like Ignalina, will draw cooling water from Lake Drisviaty (Druksiai, in Lithuanian), which, like the Neris, is shared by the two countries. This, the potential damage that the NPP will do to Lake Drisviaty, is among the main of Belarus’s grievances.

According to Andreyev, Lithuania has yet to acknowledge any of Belarus’s repeated demands to make an assessment of the thermal impact on the lake as compared to those values that were obtained before the 1978 built Ignalina was put into operation.

Likewise, said Andreyev, Lithuania has still not provided information on the cumulative impact that the sites in Visaginas – both the old station and the new nuclear infrastructure – have effected on Belarus and, in particular, the area of Braslav Lakes, an erstwhile ecologically pristine recreational parts popular with the Belarusians.

The sites Belarus has been asking questions about include facilities for reprocessing and storage of liquid and solid radioactive waste, containing concentrations of both long-lived and short-lived radionuclides; interim spent nuclear fuel storage facilities; a repository for radioactive waste of ultra-low activity levels; a near-surface repository for low- and medium-level radioactive waste; a storage facility for bituminised radioactive waste that there are plans to turn into a repository; a facility for solidification of liquid radioactive waste; and an open-air “dry” spent nuclear fuel storage facility. Andreyev believes this long list of contamination risks should also include the process of decommissioning and dismantling of the two old Ignalina reactors – something with which Lithuania has already run into certain very unpleasant problems – and construction of the new Visaginas station.

Last but not least, Belarus is not happy over the fact that the three-kilometre-wide sanitary protection zone around the new plant is expected to overlap with Belarusian territory.

In a claim mirroring that of Lithuania, Andreyev says the EIA report for the new Lithuanian plant fails to provide the kind of key information that would be needed to evaluate its full potential impact on the environment and population health in Belarus.

“The EIA report on the Visaginas NPP that Lithuania has made available to Belarus examines a number of reactors – the US-Japanese AP100, the French EPR-1660, the Canadian ACR-1000, as well as the Russian-made NPP-91/99, and other models, but no final choice has been made. How does one assess environmental impact without having chosen the reactor?” Andreyev said in comments to Bellona.

Besides, said Andreyev, the American-Japanese and French models mentioned in the Lithuanian EIA report have not yet been built anywhere in the world. Ironically, this is the same point of concern that both Russian and Belarusian environmentalists keep bringing up with respect to the Ostrovets project, where Russia’s new and yet untested in commercial operation NPP-2006 project is expected to be used.

Consequently, it is the opinion of the Belarusian Environmental Protection Ministry that Lithuania must not make decisions without first settling these issues with the Belarusian side. To settle those, Lithuania should either develop measures that would minimize the Visaginas site’s impact on the territory of Belarus or move the site from Visaginas altogether, Andreyev said.

No choosing a lesser evil where nuclear power plants are concerned

As this dragged out dispute goes on, one thing is becoming clear – that today’s nuclear technologies are no more reassuring than old nuclear power plants, those in which the world that has seen Chernobyl and Fukushima may no longer have much confidence.

Both Lithuania and Belarus are well aware of the risks even as the arguments each side is using against the other’s project reflect concerns it would rather ignore while pursuing its own.

But the “golden principle” of NPP siting, for which much was argued in Soviet-time research institutes of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences – “farther away from me, closer to my neighbour” – is fast losing purchase in a modern reality where industrial practices are bound by international obligations and closely monitored by independent third parties.

Whether or not Belarus or Lithuania find support within the Espoo and Aarhus authorities to promote their own nuclear interests and block those of their neighbour, there is a third solution, one of which environmental organisations of Belarus, Lithuania, and Russia keep reminding their governments: Choose the non-nuclear path. If such nuclear heavyweights as Germany and Japan were able to heed the lessons of Fukushima and steer their energy strategies away from nuclear, there must be a way for this small Baltic region to conceive of a future that does not include nuclear energy as an option.