Lithuania indignant over neighbouring Belarus’ nuclear project safety claims

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The new nuclear power plant (NPP), a site to be built to an experimental Russian design in the town of Ostrovets, in Belarus’ Grodno Region, has for some time been touted aggressively by Belarusian authorities. The idea has sparked grave concerns both among the Belarusian population and across the border, in the European Union member state of Lithuania. The new site’s mere proximity to the Lithuanian capital, however, is not the only reason why Lithuanians felt compelled to gather a public hearing on the Ostrovets NPP’s potential risk to the environment: Both countries are parties to the 1991 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. Since the new NPP is projected to be built just 23 kilometres off the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, it stands to reason that any harmful potential impact it may have will also extend on the environment and well-being of the population of Lithuania. A bilateral discussion of the issue is thus a requisite procedure.

Belarus makes no attempt to amend its environmental safety statement

Presented for discussion at the Vilnius hearing was a 131-page document with a long title “Statement on Potential Environmental Impact of the Belarusian NPP (A Preliminary Report on the Environmental Impact Study of the Belarusian NPP).” This document was first made available to the general public last autumn and has been criticised by independent experts as one falling badly short of the standard for a competent and comprehensive environmental impact evaluation of an industrial site of such significance. Most of the language, critics say, is flat reproduction of advertising materials distributed by Atomstroiexport – a structure within the Russian nuclear state corporation Rosatom which is in charge of the atomic authority’s intergovernmental cooperation agreements and which hopes to land the Ostrovets NPP contract.

Already in September last year, several environmental initiatives – the Belarusian Green Party, the Russian group Ecodefense!, a movement called “Scientists for a Nuclear-Free Belarus,” and the non-governmental organisation Ecodom – prepared and distributed a document called “Critical notes on the ‘Statement on Potential Environmental Impact of the Belarusian NPP.’” In it, experts concluded that the official ecological risk evaluation of the future Ostrovets site is an attempt to mislead both the public and officials responsible for relevant decision-making.

“If an unbiased assessment is done of all aspects of the NPP’s impact on the environment and population health, it will become clear that the dangerous project should be abandoned, that the only solution mutually acceptable for both the project owner and the public and which is capable of averting harmful impact on the environment is a decision to discontinue the activities related to the construction of the NPP,” the Critical Notes said.

The document includes a 23-item list elaborating the errors and oversights on the part of the official environmental evaluation statement’s authors, who, independent experts say, failed to provide a truthful assessment of all the risks that would follow from operating a nuclear power plant that would emerge practically in Lithuania’s backyard. The main conclusion in the Critical Notes claims that the official statement downplays significantly the NPP’s anticipated impact on the surrounding environment and the health of the local population both as part of standard-mode operation and in case of an accident.
Since last September, however, neither the official environmental impact statement’s authors nor Belarusian authorities have offered any response to the criticism.

Are Lithuania and Belarus expected to serve as Rosatom’s future test range?

Some twenty representatives from Belarusian ministries and other governmental entities came to attend the hearing in Vilnius. The authors of the official environmental impact statement were also among the participants. The delegation was brandishing the same old Preliminary Report to try and convince the Lithuanians of the project’s safety.

On the day of the hearing, Lithuanian environmentalists and legislators held a press conference, sharing the floor with experts invited from Russia and Belarus, who gave their opinion on the official environmental impact statement. One of these was the highly regarded scientist Georgy Lepin, Doctor of Engineering, physicist, and a former “Chernobyl liquidator” – as one among thousands of those who rushed to the site of the 1986 disaster at the Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant to volunteer services and expertise to help quell the staggering spread of contamination, he spent six years working in the most gruelling and hazardous jobs both at ground zero and in the surrounding areas and later became a fierce advocate for the rights of former liquidators and the general public who suffered from the accident. Lepin is also a co-author of the Critical Notes on the official environmental impact statement.

At the press conference, Lepin – himself a Belarusian and the former member of a 1999 state commission that examined the concept of building a nuclear power plant in Belarus in principle and advised, as a result of its work, to halt all nuclear-energy projects in the country for ten years – a moratorium that ended last year – told journalists: “We consider the Lithuanian people our brothers, sharing a centuries-long bond of common history with Belarus. This is why we worry that the harm that is being thrust upon us with this nuclear power plant might overspill on our good neighbours as well. We have very serious objections against [building] this power plant.”

Lepin shared his concerns specifically about the dangerous discharges that will take place daily at the new NPP even as part of normal operation and with regard to the potential detriment to the Neris – a river that rises in Belarus, where it is called Vilija, and flows through Lithuania’s large cities of Vilnius and Kaunas, at which point it becomes a tributary of the Neman River. The Neris will be used to draw water to cool the future NPP’s reactors and as the dumpsite for the resulting wastewaters.

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that has yet to be tested anywhere in the world. The reactor of the Russian project VVER-1200, which is intended for the Belarusian NPP, has never been built, and there is no test-proven evidence to support its reliability or the merits of the engineering solutions proposed,” the leaflets said.

An accident may sweep Lithuania’s capital off the face of the earth

The official environmental impact report states: “No contamination with long-lived radionuclides will affect the territory of the Lithuanian Republic as a result of any [beyond-design-basis accident] at the Belarusian NPP.” Members of the Belarusian official delegation reiterated this statement at the Vilnius hearing, as well. The audience responded with a storm of indignation.

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“If, God forbid, there is an accident, our capital will be destroyed, and eighty percent of the country will be contaminated. Why is there nothing about it in the [NPP environmental impact assessment] report? This here is a genocide of the Lithuanian people, no less!” said Rasa Navickiene, deputy chairman of the Development Commission of the Vilnius City Council, in an impassioned speech at the hearing.

“Why are we being told that there are no dangers at all? Is this how Lithuanians are supposed to be treated, like we’re so uneducated, we don’t know anything and can’t understand? I’ll do everything within my power to see that Lithuania does not approve such an [environmental impact] report!”

Navickiene’s anger was shared by Saulius Piksrys, chairman of the Lithuanian ecological organisation Atgaja: “I had prepared quite a number of questions, but then I saw there was no sense in even asking them. What was being said here is just ludicrous – many well-polished, long-winded speeches about nothing, no answers were given to any concrete questions. This is anything but what a real environmental impact hearing should be.”

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It would seem that Belarusian authorities are yet to settle the issue of possible contamination among themselves in the first place: The potentially serious level of radioactive contamination, should an accident occur at the new Belarusian NPP, is in fact backed by data provided by project developers, even as these estimates are based on radionuclide release assessments underrated by a factor of hundreds of times. Materials forwarded by Belarusian officials in response to comments and proposals from the Lithuanian Ministry of Environment – Bellona was able to obtain these materials for an analysis – contain maps that show radioactive fallout reach as far as the Lithuanian capital. The projected contamination density in areas close to Vilnius is estimated to be up to 1 curies per square kilometre for Iodine-131, and up to 0.1 curies per square kilometre for Caesium-137. These, to be sure, are not lethal levels, but they still are capable of inflicting significant harm on the well-being of Vilnius residents. Should, however, independent estimates by environmentalists prove to be more accurate – if, in other words, project developers have indeed underrated the potential scope of contamination by hundreds or even thousands of times – then a much worse scenario arises, with both Vilnius and a considerable portion of the rest of the country instantly becoming a zone of forced evacuation.  

Lost in translation

The irritation the audience was seething with for much of the Vilnius hearing was not over the empty safety declarations alone. Neither the Belarusian delegation nor the Lithuanian hosts could apparently be bothered enough to provide professional interpreters to translate Belarusian speeches for the Lithuanian participants.
 
A suggestion was floated in the beginning for speakers to use Russian only when presenting their reports. Both Lithuania and Belarus are formerly part of the USSR, and with Moscow ruling over the fifteen different nations that comprised the vast Soviet empire, the Russian language was a necessary and official means of communication. It still remains so for many today, but since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union – where Russian was taught as a compulsory subject at schools – it has enjoyed a far less privileged position, with former Soviet republics striving to recover their national languages and culture. A good third of the Vilnius audience were young people who came of age in the newly independent Lithuania and who had only a grasp of basic colloquial Russian, hardly sufficient for an in-depth discussion of ecological issues at hand.

An interpreter that the Minsk delegation had brought along for the visit was finally summoned to help hold the hearing together, but, having had no training for a translation job that involved specific terminology, she would get confused, stumble, ask for help from the audience, and try to tough it out by at least rendering the general outline of what was being said, letting technical details slide.  

It helped matters none that the Belarusian officials suggested at some point to “keep it simple, so even a housewife would get it” – a remark that was taken as an insult by the physicists, environmentalists, and members of the Lithuanian parliament, the Seimas, who were in the audience.

A travesty of a hearing

One of those legislators present, Gintaras Songaila, shared his impressions from the hearing:

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“This is a theatre of the absurd. There was no specific discussion on the issue of environmental impact. They started saying some abstract things, about their [Belarusian] politics, which didn’t prove anything to anyone. As for the main issue, they provided no real facts whatsoever. No real discussion took place. Nobody said anything in response to questions about the waste. They didn’t answer questions about the radioactive wastewaters, about tritium – they didn’t say anything and I don’t think they’ve wanted to.

“Though many different people came [to Vilnius] for the hearing. [But] the impression is they came for some kind of a promotional event, like a show. Like, as some said here already, to “put the tick in the box,” to show that they presented something to the public.”

“There were many physicists in the audience, many specialists,” Songaila continued, “who were asking sound questions and wanted to receive sound answers. Instead, what they got was ten-minute-long harangues and no specifics at all.”

“I will object to this project, I will speak against it in the Seimas, too. We will try to organise a group of parliamentaries to have a serious talk with our environment ministry. Because they way they had organised this discussion with the Belarusians is worse than terrible.”

Taken altogether, the low quality of the environmental impact document presented for the discussion, the organisational failures, the propagandistic demagogy of the presentations given by the Belarusian delegates, all raise serious doubts as to whether the Lithuanian public was fully informed of all the risks the construction and operation of the Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant may entail. This would constitute a violation of the requirements of the Espoo Convention and may be grounds enough to convene another hearing to comply with that transboundary impact agreement.

A democracy at work

An unexpected turn then occurred in the proceedings as the Vilnius participants finally did manage to turn the tables around. The audience simply took the matters into their own hands and started a lively discussion about what to do next – now that any attempts had apparently failed to have a substantive dialogue with the delegates. It took half an hour to negotiate the next steps, after which the hearing carried on – but already on terms quite different than what had been intended by the meeting’s presidium.

For one thing, the audience demanded that a Lithuanian environment ministry representative who was among those present at the hearing draw up, together with the other parties invited to the hearing, an official record that would reflect the result of the meeting – a strong vote of objection to the NPP construction project. Secondly, a working group of seventeen people was selected who were charged with writing, on behalf of the audience, a critical letter about the proceedings and forwarding it to the European Parliament, the Lithuanian Seimas, and the Lithuanian government. Piksrys, who was chosen to head this working group, said he believed Lithuania would likely officially adopt a negative opinion with regard to the NPP project across the border in Belarus.
This peculiar coup d’etat came as a total surprise for the Belarusian delegation. The Lithuanians had essentially usurped the reins of procedural power without looking to members of the presidium for any guidance regarding the protocol.

Irked by this unbridled revolt in the audience, Vladimir Drazhin, the Belarusian Ambassador in Lithuania, demanded: “Who gave you the right to hold a vote? We are not making any decisions yet!” A response came from the Vilnius City Council’s Navickiene: “We, the meeting participants, have already made our decision.”

Later, in an interview given to the European Radio for Belarus, the environmentalist Piksrys said: “It is entirely possible that the Lithuanians will give a negative assessment of this project. The [environment] ministry will pose a multitude of technical questions, because, for instance, [the official environmental impact report has] no section on the storage of spent nuclear fuel or waste. Or [because it] underrates the projected contamination levels that may result from a design-basis or beyond-design-basis accident.
“We have counted over twenty such issues of grave importance, which, from the way the [environmental impact] report treats them, it’s just a preschooler’s doodles, not a real technical document that should illustrate the nature of a site as serious as this.”

What will Lithuania’s reaction mean for Belarus?

Judging by how the hearing in Vilnius concluded, most of the Lithuanians who took part in it were probably in agreement with the Seimas member Songaila’s verdict when he called the meeting a “theatre of the absurd” and said he would campaign against the Belarusians’ project. Whatever the reaction from the grass roots, however, Minsk seems to be putting a brave front on what looks to be a very sorry business: “Comments and proposals from the Lithuanian side will be taken into consideration as additional work will be implemented on the Report on the Environmental Impact Evaluation of the Belarusian NPP,” said a statement released by the press service of the Belarusian Ministry of Energy.

How does one take into consideration a clear vote of disapproval that the Lithuanians have apparently given – and are likely to give officially – to the dangerous project? Minsk may well now find itself confronted with a tough choice of either abandoning the initiative of building a nuclear power plant so close to the Lithuanian capital – or risking a serious conflict with a neighbouring sovereign nation.

Andrey Ozharovsky

idc.moscow@gmail.com

Maria Kaminskaya