Belarusian President signs off on building Ostrovets nuke plant against public demands that construction get canceled

Directorate for Nuclear Power Plant Construction,

Publish date: November 19, 2013

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MINSK—As the Belarusian government made its official announcement of the “start of construction” of Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant, representatives of the Belarusian public fired back with open addresses demanding that the construction license for the plant’s Unit 1 be revoked and the very decision to build the station voided.

On November 5 – days after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko signed his decree “On the Construction of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant” – members of the country’s NGOs, initiative groups, and parties sent out open addresses protesting the plant’s construction.

In an address sent to the Department for Nuclear and Radiation Safety (Gosatomnadzor) of the Belarusian Ministry of Emergency Situations, Belarusian NGOs urged the agency to revoke the construction license issued for the reactor of the future plant’s Unit 1 and cancel the decision to build the plant.

The following day, the political council of one of the oldest democratic parties in Belarus, the United Civil Party (UCP), published a statement with a number of demands, including “immediate suspension of construction” of the plant and developing a “state program of nuclear-free development of the country through the use of energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy sources.”

Lukashenko signs Belarusian nuclear plant construction decree 

Decree No. 499, “On the Construction of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant,” was inked by President Lukashenko on November 2, the Belarusian news agency BELTA reported (in Russian).

This decision, the news report said, was taken in accordance with Article 4 of the law of the Republic of Belarus “On the Use of Atomic Energy” and allows the general contractor on the project to start construction of the plant.

Item 1 of the decree (in Russian) orders to [e]xecute in 2013 to 2020 the construction of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant […] on a plot of land in Ostrovets District of Grodno Region […].”

Belarusian (or Ostrovets) Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) is a two-unit station with reactors of the Russian series VVER-1200 and a total capacity of 2.4 gigawatts, being built to a Russian project. The general contractor is Atomstroiexport, the export wing of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom.

Several days later, BELTA cited (in Russian) Belarusian Deputy Energy Minister Mikhail Mikhadyuk as saying that the signing of Decree No. 499 gives a green light to starting building the main structures of the future plant.

Public spells out factors aggravating Ostrovets plant’s risks

Representatives of the Belarusian public demanded that Gosatomnadzor recall its construction license for the Ostrovets station’s Unit 1 and cancel the decision to build the plant based on factors that “impact the increase of the hazard level of Ostrovets NPP.”

This was stated in the open address (in Russian) sent out on November 5 and signed by the Belarusian Green Party, the ecological non-governmental organization Ecodom, the steering committee of the movement Scientists for a Nuclear-Free Belarus!, the organizing committee for the creation of the Belarusian Christian Party, the Belarusian Social-Democratic Party (Gramada), the public campaign Ostrovets NPP is a Crime!, the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and other organizations.

The request addressed to Gosatomnadzor, the statement says, is based on Article 15 of the Belarusian Law “On the Use of Atomic Energy”, which states, in part: “The decision to build a nuclear installation and (or) storage site must be cancelled, and their construction stopped, in the event that factors are brought to light that entail a decrease in the safety levels of these sites, contamination of the environment, or other adverse circumstances.”

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The authors of the address believe one such factor arises via proof that has been obtained that shows the official Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project of Belarusian NPP has been “conducted improperly, understating data on the possible impact of Ostrovets NPP on public health and the environment in case of a severe accident.”

Cited as such proof are results of the FlexRISK project – a study published in 2012 by the Austrian University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences (BOCU) – which, the open address says, show that a severe beyond-design-basis accident at one of Ostrovets NPP’s reactors may lead to contamination with the radioactive cesium-137 at levels that would be dangerous for the agriculture and public health (10 and 100 curies per square kilometer (3.7·105 and 3.7·106 becquerels per square meter)) of a territory within a radius of over 300 kilometers from the stricken reactor, possibly including the Belarusian capital, Minsk, and the cities of Vitebsk and Polotsk.   

This, in turn, the NGOs say in their open address, would require permanent evacuation of the affected territory. “But the conclusions of the official EIA for the project of Belarusian NPP do not mention such a necessity,” the address says.

The statement also says that underestimating the consequences of possible accident scenarios at Ostrovets NPP “gave grounds not to plan special protective measures, […] which in the event of a severe beyond-design-basis accident may result in unacceptable radiation exposure levels for citizens and the environment.”

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One of the address’s signees, Yury Voronezhtsev – who served as executive secretary of the USSR’s Supreme Soviet’s inquiry commission that investigated the causes of the Chernobyl disaster and evaluated the actions of officials in the post-accident period – believes an inaccurate assessment of environmental impact may result in severe consequences and aggravate the NPP’s risks.

“Any inaccuracies in documents of this kind cause distrust of the entire project. Downplaying the size of risks has already led, in the not-so-distant past, to serious consequences during the catastrophes at [Chernobyl] NPP and [at Fukushima plant] in Japan,” Voronezhtsev told Bellona in an electronic correspondence.

“But if the risks are calculated with a good margin, then in the event of a critical situation, the population and the relevant authorities will act in accordance with a plan that will mitigate the negative impact,” Voronezhtsev added. “Otherwise, the population will again be sucking up radioactive iodine and another several dozen radionuclides.”

Construction carried out prior to the architectural design

Another factor that the NGOs’ address cites as one increasing the risks of the future plant is that foundation works for the future Reactor 1 building started at the site (on May 31, 2012) before the completion of the architectural design (December 2012) or its state environmental impact assessment and issuance of construction license (September 13, 2013).

A few weeks earlier, the same was stated in a joint position (in Russian) formulated at a biennial ecological NGO forum in Minsk by over 120 experts and representatives of environmental organizations from Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Norway. The environmentalists deemed this one of the grounds to demand that Ostrovets NPP construction be stopped immediately.  

Pouring of concrete foundations for the structures of the first unit were started at the Ostrovets site on November 6, a BELTA report (in Russian) said, citing Mikhail Filimonov, head of the Directorate for Nuclear Power Plant Construction.

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“A Gosatomnadzor permit was issued to perform building and assembly works, and construction of Belarusian NPP was started today,” BELTA quoted Filimonov as saying.

At the moment, BELTA’s story says, citing Filimonov, foundation pouring for Unit 1 structures is proceeding according to the established schedule and the project documentation approved for the site.

Even though construction work in Ostrovets started as early as mid-2009, Deputy Energy Minister Mikhadyuk, speaking during an October 23 Q&A session on the BELTA website (in Russian), called this work “preparatory”:

“As regards the actual site, preparatory works have been fully rolled out there as well in accordance with the legislation and project documentation. They, too, are at a quite high level of completion so as to start the actual work on building the main structures of the nuclear power plant,” Mikhadyuk said. 

But Voronezhtsev believes that foundation works for Belarusian NPP’s Unit 1 building cannot be called “preparatory” and must be performed in accordance with the station’s project.

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“It could well be that such an approach would be possible when building a cowshed or a pigsty, but a nuclear power plant is a highly sophisticated technological complex, where one cannot draw the line separating some preparatory or main works,” Voronezhtsev said in his correspondence with Bellona. “Preparatory work here could be construction of housing, shops, and other everyday infrastructure for the personnel. Everything else, including access roads and […] utilities, must be approved as part of the same one project. This is globally accepted practice.”

“And starting works on such a hazardous site as a nuclear power plant without the relevant documents is absolutely mind-boggling!” Voronezhtsev said.

The FlexRISK modeling and the ongoing construction, started before the official launch, increase significantly the risks posed by Ostrovets NPP, including accident risks that may entail severe effects for public health, the Belarusian NGOs’ address to Gosatomnadzor says. This is why the signees urged the state oversight agency to carry out a detailed inquiry into each of the two factors, recall the Unit 1 construction license, issued on September 13, and cancel the decision to build the station.    

United Civil Party: Even an accident-free nuclear power plant is unthinkable for Belarus

On September 6, the political council of one of the largest democratic parties in Belarus, the United Civil Party, issued a statement in reaction to President Lukashenko’s decree that ordered the construction of Belarusian NPP, where the party expressed “its deep concern that the authorities have taken a final decision authorizing construction of that first Belarusian nuclear power plant in Ostrovets area” and “ignored the opinion of the majority of the population.”

The Russian original of the UCP’s statement also gave an assessment of the project in saying that the construction is being conducted without due diligence done either on the siting choices or the economic feasibility of the project – which, it is feared, will exacerbate Belarus’s energy dependence on Russia – while the ecological impact study “is completely indefensible since it was approved with no regard for the opinion of independent experts and contrary to the wishes of the governments and population of neighboring nations.”  

The statement says, further, that “the loans for NPP construction will significantly worsen the already critical situation in the economy.”

Moreover, the statement continues, “[s]torage of nuclear waste at the station, which is inevitable because of the technological features of its operation, will significantly increase the risk of recurrence of [the] national tragedy (Chernobyl disaster).”

Belarus took the brunt – and continues to deal with the consequences – of the dreadful radioactive fallout of the Chernobyl accident, when the fourth reactor of Chernobyl NPP in the former sister USSR republic of Ukraine exploded twenty-seven years ago.

The slightly expanded Russian version adds that “[e]ven in its standard operating mode, a [nuclear power plant] discharges radionuclides, which is completely unacceptable in a nation whose population suffered as a result of the global nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl NPP in 1986.”

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The UCP’s political council demanded immediate suspension of the Belarusian NPP construction; a new study of the actual environmental impact of the future plant, one that would involve participation of Belarus’s civil society and the public of neighboring states; review of the economic, technological, and environmental reasons for the construction, taking the views of independent experts into account; and preparing a state program for nuclear-free development of the country through the use of energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy sources.

Belarus’s environmental protection agency: Consultations with Lithuania are completed

Meanwhile, official Minsk also reported that it has completed its consultations on the nuclear power plant project with Lithuania – one of Belarus’s neighbor states that may be potentially affected by the operation of the future site in Ostrovets.

“With the issuance of the presidential decree on the construction of Belarusian NPP, the republic has completed its discussions with Lithuania on building the station,” the news agency Interfax-Zapad (in Russian) quoted the Belarusian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection’s head of department for state environmental impact studies Alexander Andreyev as saying. “We believe that with this, our discussions with Lithuania regarding the construction of the NPP are over, though, Lithuania, of course, believes otherwise.”

Vilnius has been a vocal opponent of the project being developed next door, expressing both its objections to the potentially dangerous site under construction just a few dozen kilometers from the Belarusian-Lithuanian border and displeasure at Minsk’s failing to follow the procedure of securing approval for the project from its neighbor.

Belarus is a signatory to the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe’s Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context – or the Espoo Convention, the international agreement that requires its member states, prior to making final decisions on building sites with possible transboundary ecological risks, to hold consultations with the concerned neighboring countries.

Last spring, Lithuania’s grievances were investigated by the Committee for the Implementation of the Espoo Convention. Taken at a hearing that was conducted on March 12 to 14, the committee’s decision found Belarus in non-compliance over a number of the convention’s provisions when developing its Ostrovets NPP project and recommended that Belarus continue its consultations with Lithuania and make its NPP siting decision in accordance with the convention’s requirements.

Vilnius, for its part, is still insisting that these discussions continue further and, in a statement released by the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, calls on Belarus to refrain from building the station before the talks are completed.