URGENT: Environmentalists urge Minsk, Moscow to stop construction of Belarusian NPP

Островецкая АЭС? Спасибо, не надо! - лозунг Антиядерной кампании Беларуси.
Andrey Ozharovsky

Publish date: January 20, 2011

An open letter distributed by environmentalists from Russia and Belarus on the eve of the January 20 high-level meeting between Russian and Belarusian prime ministers called on the governments of the two countries to abandon the controversial idea of financing and building a nuclear power plant (NPP) in Belarus’ Ostrovets.

Belarus’s premier Mikhail Myasnikovich is expected this Thursday to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow to discuss economic and energy cooperation – including the thorny issue of a nuclear power plant project Belarus is developing with Russia’s help in the town of Ostrovets, near the Lithuanian border.

Belarus intends to use an as yet untested Russian design to build two VVER-1200 reactors to a projected combined power capacity of 2,400 megawatts. The project has met strong public opposition in Russia, Belarus, and Lithuania and vigorous objections on official levels from countries that may potentially be directly affected by the plant’s future operation.

The open address to the governments of Russia and Belarus, signed by a number of ecological NGOs – including the Russian environmental group Ecodefense! and Belarus’s Ecodom (Ecohome) and the Green Party, among others – insists financial backing must be ceased for the project and the dangerous and highly criticised idea scrapped altogether.

Neither the total expected costs, nor the financing package have yet been determined for the project, environmentalists say, though Belarus plans to spend over $9 billion on the construction.

Environmentalists point out that Belarus’s decision to build the plant was made “undemocratically” and remains highly unpopular among the population. They also remind Minsk and Moscow of the numerous violations allowed when the project was put up for discussion at public hearings in Belarus, as well as of the negative assessments it has received from independent expert groups that included well-known specialists and scientists.

“We are deeply concerned by [these] facts,” the letter said. “We strongly believe that the government of Russia, the Russian taxpayers, must not provide support to controversial projects that are being implemented in circumvention of technical requirements, provisions of the international law, and principles of democracy and good neighbourly relations. Participation in such a project will do irreparable harm to Russia’s international image. We urge the Belarusian government to reconsider its decisions and correct the mistakes it has made.”

The Ostrovets project has been promoted aggressively by the Belarusian government even though the Belarusian legislation stipulates that the technology chosen for construction of a nuclear power plant must be tested in practical operation – which is not the case with the design proposed for Ostrovets. The project also lacks sufficient geological data to support the selection of the site, ecologists say.

Independent and official experts from Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, and Austria earlier pointed to significant gaps in the official environmental impact assessment report prepared by Belarus for Ostrovets.

In particular, experts have noted, the assessment downplays considerably the plant’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.

The construction is especially worrisome to Lithuania, which objects to having a nuclear power plant built less than 50 kilometres away from its capital, Vilnius.

Works are already in progress at the Ostrovets site in contravention of international environmental agreements, such as the Aarhus and Espoo conventions – a fact that is already causing tensions with Belarus’s closest neighbours, the environmentalists’ letter said.

“If Russia really wants to help Belarus, it has to be safe and economically efficient projects, not the construction of an unnecessary and dangerous nuclear power plant,” said Irina Sukhiy of Ecodom. “[…] This project is economically unviable and ecologically dangerous. We call on the Russian government to reconsider participating in it.”

Ecodefense! co-chairman Vladimir Slivyak promised that environmentalists would make every effort to ensure the Ostrovets NPP would never be built.