Ceremonial first stone laid for Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in Kaliningrad

Publish date: February 28, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – Despite resounding local and international disapproval, and deficits that have put Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom on a helter-skelter search for foreign investors, Russian officials laid the first symbolic stone in the building of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in Kaliningrad.

If completed, the plant will be the first built in Russia since Soviet times – its first reactor to be commissioned in 2016 and its second in 2018.

Present for the ceremonial laying the first foundation stone in Kaliningrad’s Nemen district  on Thursday were Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Kaliningrad Governor Georgy Boos and Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko, each of their press offices confirmed.

Rosatom has been desperate to cash in on a nuclear power plant in the Russia enclave of Kaliningrad, wedged between Poland and Lithuania, as these as well as other European countries are already complaining of power shortages. But it remains unclear whether the groundbreaking was more pomp than circumstance, as the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant continues only to be hazily discussed by Moscow.

Lithuanian’s are currently protesting energy shortages and price spikes after the shut down of their Ignalina nuclear power plant in January.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite has already turned Russia down for collaboration on the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant, saying her country would be building its own nuclear station in Visaginas.

Poland, which is coal dependent, is itself not anxious to enter in to a sticky financial deal with Russia on a nuclear power plant, preferring to stick to coal – and remain the EU’s largest CO2 emitter.

Russia itself is counting on the plant to not only bring a cash cow of exported energy, estimated to be worth $12 billion, but also to bridge some of its own claimed energy gaps.

Germany, according to a Russian nuclear official who spoke with Bellona Web Monday, is expected to be the first foreign investor to latch on to the project. The official said Russia “was in conversation with other EU countries” about investing in the 49 percent of the plant Rosatom wants to finance with foreign capital – the first time Russia has ever invited foreign investment for nuclear power.

Pressed further about what EU nations might take part, the Rosatom spokesman said Lituania and Poland – even though they have stated they have no interest – are still being courted.

This jibes with long time predictions of environmentalists and other observers who have said the Baltic Nuclear Power plant is a financial, environmental and logistical nightmare.

What does Eastern Europe know about the plant?

Much of the information on the plant, including its environmental impact studies, has been presented in a slap-dash manner.

Russia, too, has failed to hold substantive talks with surrounding nations that could be affected by any accidents at the plant under it’s obligations to the Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assesment in a Transboundary Context.

In January, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that Russia was obligated to adhere to international conventions that it had signed, but not ratified, forbidding the death penalty. Nina Popravko, a lawyer in Bellona’s St. Petersburg offices confirmed that the Constitutional Court’s decision applied to other signed, but not ratified protocols as well – namely the Espoo Convention.

Russia has been selective about where it adheres to the guidelines of the convention: while it has adhered strictly to international environmental impact assessment and consultations with neighbour states about the NordStream gas pipeline construction, it has brushed off international environmental dialogue about the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant.

Indeed, even local residents have had a hard time accessing information about the plant, beyond a handful of bread and circus events Rosatom has hosted in carnival fashion in Kaliningrad, extolling the nuclear power. The environmental impact report itself has only been distributed by the environmental group Ecodefence, who reproduced photographs of the pages of the report that hung in Kaliningrad’s main administrative building.

The government itself has made scant effort to spread the information itself.

Echoes of Chernobyl

Some opinion polls cited by environmentalists have shown nearly overwhelming opposition to the building of the plant, where others have put the figure closer to 40 percent of those surveyed.Large protests and signature drives against the plant occured in July, prior to the goverment’s public hearings. And in October, the 11th Council Meeting of European Greens held in Sweden issued an excoriating joint statement against the plant.

But local and international opposition is only one of Rosatom’s headaches.

Russia’s pre-eminent environmentalist, academician and former scientific advisor to Boris Yeltsin, Alexei Yablokov, told the US Government funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the safety of Russian nuclear power plants has not changed substantially since Chernobyl.

“It’s been said that nuclear power plants are like nuclear bombs that generate electricity. Any of them can explode,” Yablokov said.

“Not like an atomic bomb, of course, but with huge repercussions like Chernobyl. Even if the damage is 10 times less than Chernobyl, it would be a tragedy for millions of people,” he said.

Chornobyl’s long-term health effects are still unclear, but the United Nations has predicted it will ultimately cause some 4,000 extra radiation-related deaths in the most affected areas.

But Bellona Web interviews with local doctors in Ukranine and Belarus – the two former Soviet republics hit hardest by the disaster’s fallout – strongly contradicted the UN’s version as an under-estimation.

According to the interviews, local doctors reported a 20 to 30 degree spike in the number of radiation related cancers and blood related diseases. Their estimated death toll also predicted 200,000 eventual deaths specifically due to Chernobyl, and said that the number of deaths that had already occurred exceded those predicted by the UN by four times for a total of some 16,000. 

But Rostaom’s official spokesman defended the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant by saying it would use a completely different kind of reactor than that which melted down at Chenobyl.

“This is a completely different type of reactor than the one at Chernobyl,” Novikov says. “In order to keep people educated about this we will open a new information centre in Kaliningrad even before the first block will be ready for use in 2016.”

But though the reactors may be different from Chenobyl, that does not mean they new or safe. The Baltic Nuclear power plant is slated to run VVER-1000 pressurized water reactors, the design for which is already 40 years old.

Concerns over fuel transport

Aside fom general safety issues is the fact that Rosatom will have to send nuclear fuel by rail through a foreign country to the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant.

Rashid Alimov, member of ECOperestroika and former editor of Bellona’s Russian Languages pages,  told RFE/RL that the Environmental Impact Study and other information provided on the project somewhat glosses over how this delicate issue would be handled.

“There was only one phrase saying that the waste (from the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant )would be sent to reprocessing plants” in Russia proper, Alimov says. “The only way to ship nuclear waste is by train [via] Lithuania. And the only sea route is by the Baltic Sea, which is also very dangerous.”

RFE/RL reported that a survey by the “Kaliningrad Ekspress” newspaper showed that 43 percent of Kaliningrad residents opposed the plant, while 26 percent said they supported it but had safety concerns.

Alimov said the public’s opinion is not sufficiently taken into account. “We cannot say that information [about the project] is inaccessible, but there is a lack of public participation, or possibilities to have some influence on decision making,” he told the radio station.