COMMENT: Austria joins the club of angry nations outraged by Belarusian nuke project

At a hearing in Vienna, Austrians demanded that Belarus abandon its plans to build a nuclear power plant.

Publish date: June 7, 2010

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

MOSCOW – Belarus seems to be finding it increasingly hard to sell its nuclear energy plans to European nations, both near and far. This time, Minsk’s desire to build a nuclear power plant (NPP) close to the Lithuanian border was thwarted by vigorous objections from Austria: representatives of Austrian NGOs and federal authorities expressed a strong disapproval of Belarus’s intent at a hearing in Vienna in mid-May.

Hearings similar to the one that took place in Vienna have previously been held in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Ever since it first brought up the subject of building a nuclear power plant to a controversial Russian project, Belarus has been finding itself more and more hard-pressed to convince its neighbours that they have nothing to fear from the future site. For its location, Belarus has settled on the town of Ostrovets, in Grodno Region, just 23 kilometres off the Lithuanian border, and Lithuania has already made its position known, both as a matter of public opinion and on a state level: No, thank you, Minsk.

Now Austria, which does not even share a border with Belarus, joins the angry nations club. The Vienna hearing resembled all those earlier ones where Belarus’s hopes have been so mercilessly crushed. The only difference was in the style: In Vienna, in contrast to Vilnius and Kiev, where hundreds of members of the general public were present, only around 40 people participated in what could be called a chamber event. Then again, most hearing participants in Vienna were nuclear experts, industry professionals, whereas the audience in Lithuania and Ukraine consisted of citizens from all walks of life. Besides, in Vienna, representatives of different Bundesländer – or federal provinces, the states that Austria consists of – took part in the hearing. Again, the response was a big loud ‘No’ to the Belarusian plans.

Belarus presents indefensibly weak safety assurances

At the very end, summing up the hearing, Gerhard Loidl, from the environmental service of the Bundesland of Upper Austria, said: “The information provided at the hearing by the official Belarusian delegation is unsubstantiated. It has not been proven that [the Russian project dubbed] NPP-2006 can be classified as a Generation 3+ project.”

“The environmental impact has not been fully analysed,” he continued. “There is no clarity as to the issues of waste management and storage of [spent nuclear fuel]. It is not clear what will happen if a passenger aircraft crashes onto the reactor’s containment building. Possibilities of using renewable energy sources have not been evaluated correctly, and there is no clarity with regard to the more severe accident scenarios. Our conclusion is as follows: The project is not ready. We ask that its implementation be halted.”

All of the Austrian participants who had spoken at the hearing objected unanimously to the NPP project. Such a vote of complete non-confidence came as a total shock to the Belarusian nuclear industry’s delegates. Too bad that no filming or taking photos was allowed at the hearing: The delegates’ faces were so morose that sometimes you could not but feel pity for them…

Austrian NGOs against the Belarusian NPP

From the very beginning, six elderly women were very noticeable as they sat in the first row, dressed in yellow vests bearing anti-nuclear emblems. These were representatives of a non-for-profit organisation called the Vienna Anti-Nuclear Platform. One of them, Maria Urban, said during the hearing: “Our organisation is speaking against the construction of your NPP. Ninety-three percent of Austrians are against nuclear energy. We are against all NPPs – [Slovakia’s nuclear power plant in] Mochovce, Temelin [NPP in the Czech Republic], and all other ones!”

Other hearing participants supported Urban’s position.

“My organisation and I personally are critical of the project,” said Oekobuero’s Clemens Konrad.

Jurrien Westerhof, from Greenpeace Austria and Central Europe, said: “You are making a big strategic mistake by deciding to build the NPP. It looks like you don’t have all the information. An NPP is expensive, it means risks, the waste issue has not been solved.”

The refusal to go along with the Belarusians’ plans was unanimous. In the five hours that the hearing lasted, participants zeroed in on the main problems they found with the Ostrovets project. Among them were concerns that Austria may not necessarily be far enough away to afford not to care about the site’s safety. Then again, there were reasons not to trust the Belarusians’ estimations with regard to potential consequences from a severe accident, either.

Austria may be affected

The site the Belarusian have opted for to build their nuclear power plant, in the town of Ostrovets in Grodno Region, is around 930 kilometres from the Austrian border and about a thousand kilometres from Vienna. The same distance separated the Austrian capital from Chernobyl, where, back in 1986, the worst nuclear catastrophe to date occurred on April 26. At the time, Austria received about 3 percent of the radioactive fallout that resulted from the accident at that nuclear power plant in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine.
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During the hearing, Yakov Kenigsberg, a member of the Belarusian delegation and the chairman of the National Radiation Safety Commission with the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus, said that no impact can be expected in Austria from the Belarusian NPP since even in the event of a beyond-design-basis accident, no evacuation will be required for the population residing in the site’s vicinity. The only protection measure that may be deemed necessary within the radius of 20 kilometres from the plant will be distributing iodine pills, to offset any effects on the thyroid.

Kenigsberg said: “The site has been chosen in such a way that the strongest winds do not blow towards Europe, but towards Belarus.” Instead of the intended calming effect, these words shocked the Austrians gathered in the audience: Was it really possible that this Belarusian would think it was wrong to poison Europe with radionuclides, but doing the same to Belarus, his home country, was fine?  

Similar assurances were offered by Anatoly Bondar, chief engineer with the Belarusian NPP Construction Department: “The choice of [reactor design] has been made with all possible care! To think that we could have allowed a dangerous experimental reactor to be chosen!”

The reactor design chosen for the Ostrovets site is model VVER-1200 – a latest instalment in the Soviet-developed series of pressurised water reactors. The experimental Russian design is on offer from the Russian nuclear authority Rosatom and Atomstroiexport, a Rosatom structure which is in charge of intergovernmental cooperation agreements and which hopes to land the Belarusian NPP contract.

But VVER-1200 has never been built and never tested in practical operation anywhere in the world, and all estimates and calculations related to its safety are based on nothing but a series of advertising materials published by Rosatom. No real experience is there to support project developers’ safety claims. Later, Bondar admitted: “We have no experience, so this is why we have chosen this option.”

A no less dubious shred of consolation was offered by Andrei Rykov, head of BelNIPIEnergoprom. PNIRUP BelNIPIEnergoprom stands for Design and Scientific Research Republican Unitary Enterprise BelNIPIEnergoprom, a Minsk-based entity operating under the supervision of the Belarusian Ministry of Energy’s Belenergo Concern and engaged in monitoring and analysis of air and water pollution data. BelNIPIEnergoprom is also the chief project developer in charge of the Ostrovets project.

Rykov said that if an accident were in fact to take place, everyone would be informed about it: “We can guarantee that even in the event of a severe accident, we will be prepared. Your government will be informed if something happens [at our plant].”
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However, no words of comfort from Rykov, Bondar, or Kenigsberg were enough to convince the audience that they should accept the project. The document presented to the Austrians by the Ostrovets project developers – the Preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment Report – says: “The design-basis value for the radius of the territory to be covered by planned emergency population evacuation measures in case of a severe accident does not exceed 800 metres.” It is indeed hard to believe that the impact of a severe accident would not spread beyond 800 metres, or three kilometres, or even twenty kilometres.

One of the hearing’s participants said: “I don’t know where you got all those computer calculations of yours. Everyone in Austria knows that radiation from Chernobyl didn’t stop at 300 kilometres, but reached Austria and even Bavaria.”

“Caesium gets into your system with food. Austria is 1,000 kilometres away, but the winds were westbound, and it was raining, our cattle was out grazing…” the woman continued emphatically. “Livestock products were contaminated with Caesium-137. We had animal feed that, by Austrian law, was contaminated with radiation. I myself had to put out a sign saying ‘Caution! Radiation!’ I don’t want this situation to happen again!”

“We know that the Austrian territory does, too, have an area contaminated with Caesium,” said Kenigsberg in a remark that sounded as if he thought it to be a fact worth of no particular consideration.

Reinhard Uhrig, from the Austrian NGO “Global 2000,” told Bellona that “any NPP presents a potential threat, and the very fact that the Belarusian delegation is holding a hearing in Austria is proof that my country may be affected by contamination as a result of a potential accident at the Ostrovets NPP.”

Just prior to the hearing, activists from Uhrig’s organisation were distributing leaflets with more concrete data on the environmental damage that Austria had sustained after the Chernobyl accident. According to this information, the radioactive fallout that Austria received from Chernobyl in 1986 amounted to 1.6 petabecquerels worth of Caesium-137, and cancer incidence increased by 6,000 new cases, including 3,500 deaths attributed to the contamination that occurred as a direct result of the Chernobyl catastrophe.


Estimates on potential accident consequences hold no water

The Austrians were especially concerned by the stubborn denial with which the Belarusians met any questions on the potentiality of a severe accident at Ostrovets – a beyond-design-basis event that might cause the destruction of both the reactor and the containment building – as well as the delegates’ unflinching determination to underestimate the likely consequences of such an event by a factor of hundreds and thousands of times.

BelNIPIEnergoprom’s Rykov said: “The plant will be reliable, and it will not come to the consequences of the kind that were in Chernobyl. There are active safety systems. To cool the core down etc. We were consciously choosing the safest project!.. The [existing] range of measures enables us to project that there will be no destruction of the containment vessel.”

The Ostrovets site is supposed to be equipped with double containment and, according to the Belarusians, this dome will be able to trap almost all of the radioactive discharge released as a result of an accident. But these assurances are nothing but preliminary estimates very much in the spirit of assertions made by the atomic lobby in the past – such as that Chernobyl-type reactors are so safe that Red Square in Moscow might as well have one. No serious expert can be expected to afford such statements even a grain of trust.

Said another member of the Austrian audience: “All these data that the Belarusian delegation is presenting here, all the figures for beyond-design-basis accidents, these are all pure conjectures! This is fantasy, it’s all made up! One cannot believe these estimates made by nuclear propagandists…”

“We are very distrustful of the data presented by you on the likeliest scope of potential accidents. It is believed by some that even Chernobyl was not the worst possible accident since the melted reactor core never came into contact with ground waters. You are unable to give us [credible] data, unable to foresee all consequences.”

Another woman in the audience: “There are always residual risks. The same two or three percent that Austria got from Chernobyl – this is our share of the residual risk. No calculation can be an absolute guarantee.”

Helmut Hirsch, from the Austrian Institute of Ecology, took over: “It is important to me that Austria was affected by Chernobyl’s problems. You say now that nothing can happen because it’s a new NPP with double containment. Can you rule out, one hundred percent, the possibility that something might happen with the containment vessel? On September 11, those planes, too, did not fly where they were supposed to… An accident leading to a core meltdown can happen at any reactor. Containment can be partially destroyed. Accidents under this category have not been provided for in your document.”

“If the containment building is destroyed, [radioactive] discharges will be 100, 1,000 times larger than what you’re asserting!” Hirsch went on. “Your analyses are neither complete nor accurate. We recommend you not to rely on theoretical estimates while excluding [accident scenarios] from your consideration.”

Kenigsberg, of the Belarusian National Radiation Safety Commission, could not deny the obvious mistakes and sought the last resort in invoking a higher providence: “Yes, we could have provided for a scenario that includes the destruction of the containment building. But so far, there haven’t been accidents of this kind in history. There is uncertainty in any projections. God has not yet given us a model [to calculate such uncertainties]. We are in step with the times! We cannot lag behind other countries! Our work is up to par! As soon as this [highly] unlikely event of containment destruction occurs somewhere, we will take it into consideration.”

The discussion was summed up by Oekobuero’s Konrad: “Your documents and your assertions are just pro-nuclear lobbying.”

Airplanes? Shoot ‘em down!

It follows from the documents presented at the hearing by the Belarusians that the new NPP’s containment building will only be able to sustain the crash impact of a light-weight aircraft with a mass not exceeding 5.7 tonnes and going at a speed of no more than 360 kilometres per hour.  That means that if a modern medium-range passenger airliner, a plane with a mass of between 100 and 150 tonnes and flying at speeds ranging between 800 and 900 kilometres per hour, were to crash into the reactor, the containment building would simply be destroyed. Damage, partial or extensive, would be inflicted on the reactor and on the on-site fresh and spent nuclear fuel storage facilities. This is one very concrete external-impact-related accident scenario of considerable severity that the Belarusians are refusing to consider even in theory.
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Concerns about the plant’s exposure to a potential plane crash were raised by the Austrian Ecology Institute’s Hirsch: “There are scenarios and mechanisms of containment destruction associated with external impact factors, such as a falling airplane. Let us take this into consideration, without waiting until such an accident occurs. We need to protect ourselves from being overly optimistic.”

The Belarusian radiation safety official Kenigsberg countered with this presumption: “The US is indeed considering a scenario involving a crash of a large plane. We have not considered such a scenario. We do not consider scenarios involving terrorist attacks. Belarus does not engage in conflicts with the Islamic world. We have no reason [to fear] terrorism. But we have ways to shoot down a plane or even a cruise missile!”

A member of the ecological service of the Austrian state of Burgenland insisted: “We have not received any answer with regard to accidents involving airplanes. If the NPP is built, it will be a site that will be attractive for terrorists. We have St. Stephen’s Cathedral – it could be attacked. Your NPP is, too, an object of prestige – and an object for attack. You need to take into account potential terrorist attacks. And you’re not even thinking about this problem! You’re oversimplifying the situation! Please, I ask you, give it a thought!”

Kenigsberg conceded this point, to an extent: “Last October, I gave a report in Moscow at a meeting of the antiterrorist centre of the [Commonwealth of Independent States]. There was a meeting on nuclear terrorism. Yes, a plane could attack an NPP. We are thinking about this, there are relevant [protection] plans. Funds are being allocated.”

Yet, no sincere concerns about the Ostrovets site’s potential exposure to a terrorist attack seemed to throw him off balance: “There is the United Group Alignment of the forces of Russia and Belarus. The border is safely covered by aviation, missiles, the S-300 [anti-aircraft missile systems]. We can knock out any target!”

Er… and the international conventions?

Then Oekobuero’s Konrad revealed yet another disturbing fact: When making the decision to build the nuclear power plant in Ostrovets, Belarus actually violated two international conventions.

Two complaints against Belarus have been brought forward within the frameworks of the Espoo and Aarhus conventions, Konrad said, referring to the 1991 Espoo Convention on the Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context and 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.

“Two complaints are being examined with regard to [alleged] violations of public participation procedures in Belarus: infringing upon the public’s rights, violating human rights of the opponents of the nuclear energy industry etc.,” Konrad said.

“The decisions regarding the construction of the NPP have been made without the participation of the public. What will happen if the complaints result in a decision that will be negative [for the Belarusian authorities]? Will you abandon the construction plans?”

This question seemed to miss the target completely, as Kenigsberg sought refuge in demagoguery: “These are all just pretty words. In real life, we express our will during elections, by voting for parliament members. Our public has a large role to play, we are open to dialogue. All information has been posted on websites. Everyone can express their point of view. We know about the conventions. We are clean and we are transparent.”

Similar non-responses to a simple question about whether or not Belarus intended to honour the obligations it assumed when signing the two conventions were given by Alexander Andreyev from the Belarusian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection and Mikhail Pigulevsky, representing the Ministry of Energy. The hearing moderator was forced to cut their monologues short, stating that no exhaustive answers had been given to the question.

Belarusian environment ministry: We know all NPP opponents and we will not listen to them!

Still, the question about the opposition to the project on the domestic front, inside the Belarusian republic, plagued the minds of the Belarusian delegates.

They seemed to understand less and less that they were, in fact, in a place abiding by different traditions and behaved as if they were in surroundings they were better used to – somewhere where they could attempt threats and intimidation and scare tactics to silence NPP opponents. By doing so, the officials seemed unaware that instead of dispelling, they were only reinforcing the suspicion that all was not right with citizens’ rights in Belarus. In Vienna, their statements sounded uncannily, preposterously cynical.

Said Andreyev from the environment ministry: “The notion of public opinion is a multifold one. Certain members of the public take a negative view of the NPP. But there are other people as well. There are those who are asking to build the NPP in their region. There are many of those. Various regions are competing to host the NPP!”

BelNIPIEnergoprom’s Rykov took over: “All of your information is coming from one [side]. I have taken part in public hearings in Ostrovets. In other cities, too, and on Belarusian television. Your logic is that there is either your point of view [of opposition to the project] or the wrong one! It isn’t so. But taking the ‘Block the NPP, No to the NPP’ opinion into consideration is not a constructive approach.”

Back to Andreyev: “Over 1,500 meetings have been conducted at various enterprises, seventy-four public organisations took part in them, there are records to prove. Your allegations are unfounded! The issue of building a plant in Belarus was settled as far back as the 1970s! The public’s petitions and these complaints will have no consequences. That some non-governmental organisations will be against – they are not the majority, they are few and far between. We know everybody who’s against! The government is entitled to making a decision that it deems necessary and not taking into account the opinions of a handful of individuals. We will not take their opinions into account.”

That last line bewildered the audience. The Ministry of Environmental Protection would ideally play the role of an objective arbiter, rather than demonstrating its unwavering loyalties to the atomic lobby – something that Andreyev seemed to underscore at every turn.
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The very claim, made so insistently by the Belarusian nuclear industry’s envoys in Vienna, that only a few isolated individuals oppose the construction of a nuclear power plant in Ostrovets was soon rendered void in quite an unexpected turn of events. An interactive poll conducted only a week after the hearing in Vienna as part of a live broadcast from the Belarusian television station ONT (or Nationwide Television, in Belarusian) showed 87 percent of the 13,500 respondents did not believe in the safety of modern nuclear power plants. (More on the broadcast and the poll can be found here, in Russian, complete with links to video download). Andreyev’s assertion that NPP opponents were a negligible minority was proven to be a serious stretch of fact.

Yet, for the agitprop team dispatched to Vienna, data fudging – or, in plain language, lies – seems to be the only way to try to convince decision-makers and the public that nuclear power plants are still wanted by someone other than the lobbyists themselves and the Russian nuclear corporation Rosatom. This is why they are downplaying the scope of possible radioactive discharges, refusing to examine the severest accident scenarios, rejecting the idea that the majority of the Belarusian population may not trust them. The hearing in Vienna revealed their tactics once again, making manifest their inability to hold a normal conversation with experts from another country.

Time limitations or incompetence?

With all that, the Belarusian delegates turned out to be sore losers, too. The Belarusian Ministry of Energy has distributed a statement saying: “The Belarusian specialists gave exhaustive answers to all questions that were posed, demonstrated the various scenarios of the NPP’s potential environmental impact, and presented information on measures of protection of the population and the animal and vegetable world. Due to time limitations, members of the Belarusian delegation did not have the time to answer some of the questions; all the information that is of interest to the Austrians has been extended additionally in printed form.”

An obvious attempt to chalk failure up to time limitations looks pathetic indeed.

Austria sums up its disapproval of Belarus’s plans

Andreas Molin, head of the nuclear issues department of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment, and Water Management, told Bellona that in addition to helping organise the hearing, his agency, on request from the ministry, also wrote an expert evaluation of the Belarusian project. The report prepared by the Austrian experts, in which they gave a negative assessment of the Ostrovets endeavour, has been sent to Minsk. As the main problem, the authors emphasised that the official Belarusian impact assessment report does not give an adequate evaluation of risks associated with a beyond-design-basis accident, should it take place at the future site.

Because representatives from Belarus failed to answer all the questions that were posed to them both during preliminary consultations and at the hearing in Vienna, Austria will continue its communication with Belarus regarding the construction of the nuclear power plant, as provided for by the Espoo Convention.

“All the questions that remain open, we will send them in written form, and we hope to receive answers that we, in our turn, will evaluate as well,” Molin told Bellona. “The final document, when it is prepared by the ministry, will be sent to Minsk together with our expert assessment and the minutes of the public hearing.”

It is without doubt that the Austrian government will heed its experts and reject the Belarusian project on an official level – just like Lithuania did before them. Can one hope that the growing opposition to the Ostrovets NPP will finally push Belarus to abandon the dangerous project?

The above story has been contributed by Andrei Ozharovsky, who has written an extensive number of news pieces and commentary on the subject for Bellona and – as a nuclear expert and a co-author of the Statement of Public Expert Environmental Evaluation of the Belarusian NPP Project – was himself a participant of the hearing in Vienna.

The English version of that document is expected to be published soon on the website of the Anti-Nuclear Campaign of Belarus.

Professional simultaneous interpreting was provided at the hearing, and quotes given by the Austrian participants first appeared in the Russian translation in the original Russian-language story on Bellona’s website. They were rendered here in English translation from the Russian.