Lithuania rallies against prospects of getting trapped in a nuke noose

bodytextimage_pic5.jpeg Photo: Andrei Ozharovsky

To make their concerns well-recognised, residents of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, held an anti-nuclear march last April 26 to commemorate the 24th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and demand a withdrawal of plans by Russia, Belarus, and Lithuania to build three new nuclear power plants in Neman in Russia’s Kaliningrad Region, Ostrovets in Belarus, and Visaginas in Lithuania, respectively. They urged the three nations to start developing renewable energy as an alternative to the dangerous atomic plans.

The marchers walked through Gediminо Prospektas – or Gediminas Avenue, a central street in the Lithuanian capital – and also held pickets outside the Vilnius-based diplomatic missions of Russia and Belarus. Altogether, around 200 people – representatives of environmental organisations operating in Lithuania, Russia, and Belarus, students, anarchists – took part in the April 26 demonstration.

Lithuanians fear becoming the hot spot of a nuclear triangle

“We do not want for Lithuania to end up encircled by nuclear power plants,” Saulius Piksrys, chairman of the Lithuanian ecological organisation Atgaja, said during the demonstration.

The day when the world woke up to the worst nuclear disaster to date at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what was then the Soviet Republic of Ukraine is traditionally commemorated in Lithuania, itself a former republic of the now-defunct USSR. This year, the threat of repeating that horrible experience rings an even more resonant warning toll as Lithuania is brought face to face with the prospect of seeing as many as three new nuclear power plants being erected in the region – an outlook spelling bitter irony since it was only a few months ago, on January 1, that Lithuania shut down the single, Soviet-built, NPP it used to operate, called Ignalina and based in Visaginas. This threat was what finally pushed people into the streets with anti-nuclear signs and banners reading “For a Nuclear-Free Future,” “Nuclear Electricity? No Thank You!,” “No to Nuclear Monsters!,” “NO to NPP Construction, NO to Radioactive Waste, YES to Progressive Technologies,” “Ostrovets NPP? No Thank You!,” and the like.

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“We are calling for a nuclear-free future of our region!” said the address, whose signatories included the Non-Governmental Ecological Organisation Atgaja, the Lithuanian Coalition of Non-Governmental Organisations, the Action Group of the Lithuanian Green Party, the Action Group of Vilnius Citizens against NPP Construction, a Belarusian non-governmental group called Ecohome (Ekodom), the Belarusian Anti-Nuclear Campaign, and the International Environmental Group Ecodefense!.

Another picket was also organised in front of the building housing the Lithuanian government and a letter demanding to scrap plans for a new Ignalina was handed to government officials. The new NPP may be built in Visaginas close to where Ignalina was shut down on the last night of the year 2009.

“No” means “no”   

Lithuanians have previously voiced both unequivocal objections to the very idea of Belarusians building a new NPP in Ostrovets, just 55 kilometres away from Vilnius, and indignation over Minsk’s unsupported claims that there are no safety concerns to be bothered about. At a public hearing held in Vilnius last March 2, Lithuanians were left deeply unsatisfied with the Belarusian environmental impact evaluation report on the projected site. This eventually prompted an official rejection of the Belarusian plan by the Lithuanian Ministry of Environment, which recently sent Minsk a note of concern regarding the report’s glaring deficiencies.

At the March hearing, an event that was nearly botched through poor organisation, participants were more than ready to engage in a constructive dialogue as the Belarusian atomic industry envoys reiterated bland safety claims, but the unreceptiveness of some among the Minsk delegates, their demagoguery, and their inflexibility bordering on affront, deepened Lithuanians’ apprehensiveness toward the dangerous project and further convinced them not to agree to it. A decision was made as a result to request that the Lithuanian environment ministry make an official notation of their disapproval of the experimental Russian project in the meeting’s record – the ministry did them one better, by issuing an official letter of concern – and an inquiry was later started by a group of parliamentaries to establish the real hazards the site may pose.

The Internet petition campaign

After the hearing, participants launched an Internet petition campaign gathering signatures against the construction of the Ostrovets NPP. As of end April, over 23,000 people signed their names under the petition.

“This planned economic activity may have a negative impact on Lithuania’s environment, because the NPP’s operation will affect the hydrological conditions of the river Neris [and] radionuclides will be carried over both by water and by air. An accident at the site may put at risk the well-being of the environment and the health of the Lithuanian population,” the petition says, in part. “… Lithuania must not end up in the trap of untested nuclear technologies and the nuclear energy industry’s negative impact on the human health and the environment.”

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The signature-gathering campaign is a testament to the growing concerns over new nuclear projects among Lithuania’s residents, and Belarus’s irresponsible agenda seems to be influencing greatly the Lithuanians’ outlook on nuclear energy in principle.

The recently shut-down Ignalina NPP was part of the legacy inherited by Lithuania from the USSR – basically at no cost at all. Electricity, when the plant was still operational, was therefore supplied at very low – practically, dumping-level – prices as there was no need to compensate for the investment costs. This artificial pricing luxury was what compelled many in Lithuania to accept the risks and hazards of nuclear energy.

This situation, however, is slowly changing. Now that Ignalina is scheduled for decommissioning and reactor dismantlement, Lithuania is discovering, on the merits of personal experience, what a challenge managing nuclear waste is even if it is done with funds provided by the European Union – shutting Ignalina down was one of the conditions of Lithuania’s ascension to the union – and that decommissioning a nuclear power plant is a costly and painstaking job.  Finally, observing new nuclear projects being deployed in neighbouring countries – essentially, in one’s backyard – serves to make one take off the rose-coloured glasses and assume a soberer attitude toward nuclear energy.

Eight thousand people took part in a vote on the Belarusian NPP taken on the popular Lithuanian website Lietuvos rytas. Only 12 percent of those polled said they believed Belarus would build a safe NPP. Half of the respondents, when asked if Lithuanians should be worried about the site’s safety, chose this answer: “Of course we should! We must do everything in our power to stop the construction as soon as possible.”

The picket at the Belarusian Embassy

The action at the Belarusian Embassy did not just draw Lithuanian nationals – the protesters included Belarusian students and representatives of the Anti-Nuclear Campaign of Belarus and the environmental organisation Ekodom.

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A copy of the environmentalists’ address to the Belarusian government was given to an embassy representative. It said, in part: “To no country where nuclear energy has been used has it brought independence or prosperity, quite the opposite: dependence, economic and ecological problems, and disease. After what was practically a stagnation in the nuclear energy industry for over 20 years, it is back making new promises to society, those of safety and low costs. They are not to be trusted!”

In their comments for the mass media, Belarusian environmentalists said that the authorities in Belarus do not allow them to hold public anti-nuclear events, which is why they are forced to come to Vilnius to support fellow campaigners in Lithuania. True, as illustrated by Bellona’s earlier report on repressions the Belarusian state undertakes against environmentalists, speaking out against the Ostrovets NPP can bring about dire consequences in that country.

The picket at the Russian Embassy

Another picket was held by the protesters in a small garden outside the Russian Embassy, to voice objections to the projected construction by the Russian nuclear authority Rosatom of a nuclear power plant in Kaliningrad Region, Russia’s westernmost enclave just southwest across the Lithuanian border. A dozen activists spread out banners saying “A Nuclear Power Plant? No Thank You!,” “Yes to a Nuclear-Free Region!,” “Chernobyl Lessons: The Future Needs Us to Remember.”

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One difference between the two projects pursued by Russia and Belarus is that the Russians are even less inclined to take their neighbours’ concerns under consideration: Unlike Belarus, Russia has even refused to hold a public hearing in Lithuania to discuss the project with Lithuanian residents. Russia, effectively, does not want to listen to what Lithuania has to say about the new site, which is for now dubbed Baltic NPP.

The Russian Federation has not held any consultations or public hearings in any of the states potentially affected by the NPP to be built in Kaliningrad’s Neman Region, even though both Lithuania and Belarus have repeatedly – once, at a local hearing in Neman on July 24, 2009 – asked for such discussions.

Russia is, incidentally – just like Lithuania and Belarus are – a signatory to the Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, which was effected in 1991 in the Finnish town of Espoo. By signing the Espoo Convention, Moscow assumed the obligation to conduct, prior to making a decision on launching a project capable to inflict significant transboundary impact, relevant consultations and hearings in neighbouring countries. Though Russia has yet to ratify the convention, it has at the same time never stated its refusal to do so. This means Russia still has to follow its requirements in accordance with international law.  

If official Moscow and the nuclear corporation Rosatom do not intend to inform the public of neighbouring nations of the potential risks and dangers of the Baltic NPP and of the hazardous effects it may have on the environment and population health in surrounding regions, this task can and will be carried out by non-governmental organisations. A public hearing on the Baltic NPP may well happen in Vilnius, and the Lithuanians may well yet have their say just as they did during the hearings on the Belarusian site in Ostrovets.

The address to the Russian president

An hour-long picket at the Russian Embassy ended with environmentalists serving an embassy representative an open letter to Russian President Medvedev and his government with a demand to renounce the dangerous Baltic NPP project.

The address says: “We urge the Russian President and the Government of the Russian Federation to take into consideration that:

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– NPPs are dangerous for the population, the environment, and cultural legacy of Russia and Lithuania;

– problems posed by the nuclear energy industry have not been solved anywhere in the world, and they will not be solved in Russia, either. These are:

  •     radioactive waste,
  •     dangers associated with low radiation doses,
  •     risks of accidents, including those with devastating consequences;

   
– nuclear energy is not a means to combat global climate change, since significant greenhouse gas emissions occur when producing NPP reactor fuel;

– to no country where nuclear energy has been used has it brought independence or prosperity, quite the opposite: dependence, economic and ecological problems, and disease.”

Russian diplomat advise anti-nuclear activists to start fighting cars instead

The Russian Embassy representative who took the environmentalists’ letter was embassy counsellor Lev Portnov, who recommended the protesters to stop fighting nuclear power plants and switch their attention to… cars, which, he said, were the big danger to human well-being. “Then I will join you,” he promised.

This surprised Vainius, from the environmental organisation Atgaja, who, together with a representative of Ecodefense! and in presence of Lithuanian journalists, was delivering the address to Portnov. Vainius explained to the Russian diplomat that he is the chairman of Cyclists’ Club of the city of Kaunas and is, in fact, personally involved in the efforts to mitigate the environmental and human health impact of road transport.

“Yeah? I just recently saw a bike rider hit a pedestrian!,” was Portnov’s immediate reply. The diplomat’s cheeks were aglow, his eyes glistening with the argument’s excitement – an uncanny reaction from an embassy official who was rather expected to just take the letter and not launch into disbursing dubious advice.

How real is the threat, exactly?

There is the legitimate question of how realistic the plans to build all or any of the three NPPs – each with a projected power output of over two gigawatts – are. At the moment, only Russia’s new nuclear power plant is officially scheduled for the launch of construction works. In Kaliningrad Region, the first brick laying ceremony was already held and excavation began at the site. It is, however, too early to expect the start of serious, large-scale construction there, and the actual development may take years, if not decades. As one example, the new BN-800 reactor at Beloyarsk NPP, near the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, has now been in the works for 25 years.
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The Belarusian project is approximately at the same stage, construction is ongoing of motor and railway access roads to the Ostrovets site, in Belarus’s Grodno Region. But Belarus is for now far from the first brick laying celebration:  There are no funds to build the NPP with, and the contract has not even been signed yet. Belarus is looking to build the plant with someone else’s hands and someone else’s money – namely, Russia’s.

The really controversial detail in the whole affair is that both the Kaliningrad Region site and  the Belarusian Ostrovets project are supposed to be built to an experimental Russian design dubbed NPP-2006, a brainchild of Rosatom’s that is yet to be implemented anywhere in the world. The main elements of the design – those that will be responsible for the plants’ safety – are absolutely new and have not been tested in operational practice. These include the VVER-1200 reactor – a latest instalment in the Soviet-developed series of pressurised water reactors – the TVS-2M fuel assemblies, the GTsNA-1391 reactor coolant pump, and the PGV-1000MKP steam generator, among other things. All of these are experimental, untested pieces of equipment that may well turn out to be non-functional or accident-prone. Rosatom is basically preparing an experiment on people, on entire countries. No wonder Lithuanians are taking a dim view of the whole idea of seeing the two plants emerge so close to the country’s border.

As to Lithuania’s own plans of replacing the old Ignalina with a new NPP, this project is the least developed of the three. So far, Vilnius has only made a preliminary choice of the site, near the closed Ignalina plant, but the situation is unclear with regard to the reactor type, the manufacturer, or where the money for construction is going to come from.

All in all, plans to build three new nuclear power plants at once in a region as small as this look questionable at best. Bringing over six gigawatts’ worth of power generation into the region’s energy system by between 2018 and 2020 would seem both unfeasible and unnecessary. There are no large enough energy consumers to require so much electricity and all three nations are undertaking measures to enhance energy conservation and energy efficiency, an effort which is gradually reducing the level of energy consumption to begin with. Besides, the existing energy infrastructure is simply unprepared to accommodate the new capacities. New power lines will have to be installed for each of the NPPs – that means hundreds of kilometres of power cables, and that spells additional costs.

The atomic lobby of the three countries is, however, unwilling to discuss these issues. Their preferred focus is on political interests and on trying to prove the unprovable – namely, that each of the countries’ own pet project is better than those of the other two.

The anti-nuclear camp takes a principally different stance.

“We environmentalists do not want to make any distinctions between the three nuclear power plants,” Atgaja’s Vainius said in an interview he gave to the Lithuanian news agency Delfi.lt. “All of them are equally unacceptable to us. As far as details are concerned, Lithuania has no idea at all which reactor will be chosen and built. In the case of Belarus and Kaliningrad Region, they say a reactor of a new design will be built, which has not been operationally tested or installed anywhere yet.”

Authorities react

On April 27, the anti-nuclear protest received an irritated comment from Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius. Kubilius griped that the Lithuanians were not just protesting the two NPPs to be built across the border, but their future ‘native’ one as well.

“When I see that they are already starting to hold protest rallies not only against the NPPs in Belarus or Russia, but also against the construction of an NPP in Visaginas, I sometimes think that this is exactly what the objective was with announcements of plans to build NPPs in Russia and Belarus,” Kubilius was quoted by Delfi.lt. as saying.
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Kubilius did, however, confirm official Lithuania’s concerns over the Russians and Belarusians’ intent to build their own nuclear power plants.

“We are also worried about these plans, both by Russia and Belarus, for two reasons,” Kubilius said in a radio broadcast. “It is without any doubt that if the NPPs are built, we will see significant ecological challenges, [and] we are discussing this with relevant agencies.”
 
Yet, according to media reports, the Lithuanian premier opted not to take a hard-charging position regarding at least the Ostrovets project during the recent meeting with his Belarusian counterpart, Sergei Sidorsky.
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Lithuania’s former president Valdas Adamkus called Russia’s and Belarus’s plans to build nuclear power plans right across from the Lithuanian border a “siege” undertaken “for political goals.”

“Here, we are dealing with high politics already. [There is] the construction of such power plants on the one hand, and [there is] a siege of Lithuania, as it were, for political goals,” Adamkus said in response to the media’s questions on the projected Ostrovets and Baltic sites. “That the Belarusian NPP is supposed to be built near the Lithuanian capital is inexplicable, because there is plenty of territory around with lesser population concentration. You have to adhere to certain laws of safety in some cases.”

Yet, Adamkus believes Lithuania will not do without a nuclear power plant of its own – like others who still support nuclear energy in Lithuania, he believes only the ‘native,’ Lithuanian plant will be safe and reliable, as opposed to those that may eventually be built by the country’s former USSR fellow members.

Meanwhile, Lithuanian activists are strongly resolved to continue protesting exactly such prospects – or any threatening nuclear future Lithuania may be facing – until their demands are heard.

“We will organise campaigns in the future, too, to make sure that the government stops telling all strategic investors that everyone in Lithuania supposedly supports nuclear energy. Many people are, in fact, against it,” said Atgaja’s Piksrys. Despite recommendations that politicians and diplomats seem eager to disburse on them, Lithuanian environmentalists are firmly set to fight all three nuclear power plant projects, demanding that the region’s non-nuclear status remain intact.

Andrey Ozharovsky

idc.moscow@gmail.com

Maria Kaminskaya