COMMENT: Why would Lithuania’s ex-premier help build a new nuclear power plant in Russia?

Publish date: June 6, 2011

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – To a casual observer, Lithuania’s former prime minister Kazimira Prunskiene might seem to be aiming to forge good-neighbourly relations with Russia. In point of fact, this is nothing but a ploy to be able to tap into the funds allocated for the construction of Russia’s Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in Kaliningrad Region.

At the end of May, Prunskiene – currently the leader of Lithuania’s agrarian centre-left party,  the Lithuanian Peasant Popular Union, and formerly, this small Baltic republic’s prime minister  in 1990 and 1991, was on a visit to Russia’s westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad. The agenda of this trip also included a visit to the site of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), now under construction. During a meeting with Kaliningrad Governor Nikolai Tsukanov, Prunskiene talked about the “necessity” for Lithuania to participate in the construction and operation of the future plant. As she said after the conversation with the governor, she had had the opportunity, while being led around the site, to ascertain for herself the “potential, reliability, and safety of the station.” The interesting fact about this station is that at this point, it presents nothing more than a huge pit awaiting to be filled with concrete for a future foundation. An assessment of reliability of a new nuclear power plant based on a tour around a big empty pit must indeed be a completely novel and unique method in the history of NPP safety evaluations.

What is this new Russian site exactly? The Baltic NPP is being built in Neman in Kaliningrad Region, a small patch of Russian land wedged between the European Union nations of Poland and Lithuania, on the southwest and northeast, respectively, and the Baltic Sea on the west. To the southeast beyond Lithuania is another former Soviet republic, Belarus, and further to the east, the vast expanses of mainland Russia. The two-unit 2.3-gigawatt nuclear power plant built to an experimental Russian design will thus end up being in the very backyard of the European Union,  close to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, and also one tip of an ominous triangle – Belarus’s project in Ostrovets and Lithuania’s own tentatively planned new NPP in Visaginas being the other two – that environmentalists fear will lock the Baltic region into a desperate nuclear chokehold.

Curiously, the Baltic NPP is also a first Russian NPP project that Moscow has made open to participation by foreign investors – 51 percent of the capital funding is to be provided by the Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom, while the rest is expected to flow from private coffers based abroad. And the only reason this station is being built is to export the future power output to the European Union – rather than meet the local demand – something that is well confirmed by documents from the Russian electric power trader Inter RAO, which has been charged with finding a European investor for the project.  

Today, energy consumption rate in Kaliningrad stands at 3.9 billion kilowatt-hours, covered by existing sources, and the Baltic NPP is to provide another 13 billion to 15 billion kilowatt-hours per year. The idea pursued by Russia’s nuclear peddlers is thus very simple: Future output is used purely for sale on the European market, the profit lands in the pockets of the NPP’s share-owners, while all the associated risks are left with the Kaliningrad population (or, should a major accident occur, those of the neighbouring nations as well). The big pitfall that now threatens to derail this plan, then, is the Lithuanian government’s attempts to convince Europe to boycott the Baltic NPP project. A refusal by the European Union member nations to buy the Baltic NPP’s energy would effectively render the costly and dangerous endeavour completely useless. This is why the Russian nuclear industry is at great pains to create a picture of seeming discord within the Lithuanian political circles with respect to the Baltic NPP project. Kazimira Prunskiene has become a pawn in this little scheme.

Still, the main harm is not that Prunskiene has aired her support of the Baltic NPP, but that the political game she is unwittingly playing into is aimed to distract the observers from the real dangers the new NPP will inevitably bring to the region. The discussion, in other words, is being hijacked to a level of mutual political bickering between Russia and Lithuania, with the added benefit of instigating a squabble within the political establishment in Vilnius. But whatever the true reasons for Prunskiene’s statements are, achieving those goals at the expense of safety of the residents of Kaliningrad Region and neighbouring states is unworthy of a serious politician. Such behaviour is neither that of a good neighbour, nor particularly wise.

Kaliningraders are not exactly thrilled about assuming a multitude of health and environmental risks only to enable a clique of nuclear merchants with sway over the ruling circles to turn obscene multi-billion profits on construction and power export contracts. When asked, in the course of a 2007 poll, “What is your attitude to the construction of the NPP?”, 67 percent of Kaliningrad residents said they were against it. The decision to build the Baltic NPP also all but killed Kaliningrad’s prospects of fulfilling promising plans for sustainable renewable energy in the region – including projects developed by Kaliningrad’s own scientists and the results of various ventures aimed at reviving or launching new green energy sites supported with European funding.

Before making her sweeping conclusions derived from an observation of a big muddy pit in Neman, Prunskiene might have taken a look at some of the details in the project documentation. For instance, according to a statement made by Ivan Grabelnikov, the chief engineer overseeing the Baltic NPP project, the VVER-1200 reactors that Russia is building in Kaliningrad have never undergone simulation testing to check against the risk of a large airliner crashing onto the plant. Nuclear companies operating in Western Europe are these days required to prove that their new reactors will be able to withstand the impact of a large passenger plane. Quite obviously, a major plane crash could not just put the reactors permanently out of commission, but also destroy the on-site storage facilities with spent nuclear fuel, complete with mass-scale radiation leaks that such devastation will entail. And no protection is provided for against such accidents in the Russian project. Incidentally, an air passageway for international flights is right in the vicinity of the site, too.

The selection of the place for construction was likewise done in a hurry and without an exhaustive geological survey. The site, however, is known to be in a location where ground waters are found quite high up in the soil and in certain places even show on the surface.

The VVER-1200 reactors belong to a completely new Russian reactor series, dubbed AES-2006 (for NPP-2006). It is touted by Rosatom as a latest technological achievement, but the fact is the model has no extensive history of operation to back any safety or reliability claims, and the choice of this design for the Baltic NPP project is not at all well-justified. During the construction of a similar site in China, the Russian side received repeated grievances from the Chinese regarding the quality of materials and equipment, something that eventually led to a significant delay in the launch schedule. During its first year of operation, the reactor in China had to be stopped twice for unplanned maintenance.

The materials of the state-issued report on the environmental impact assessment of the Baltic NPP construction project in Kaliningrad contains misleading information about the management of future nuclear waste. The report asserts that the spent nuclear fuel burned in the Baltic NPP’s reactors will be shipped off to a “regeneration plant” – i.e. reprocessing facility – in Siberia. But the fact is Russia does not have a facility to reprocess fuel burned in VVER-1200 reactors. So what is most likely to be anticipated here is the accumulation of another nuclear waste dump. This sad situation concerns both the spent nuclear fuel and, several decades from now, the reactors proper, which will, by the time they exhaust their engineered life spans, have turned into thousands of tonnes of high-level radioactive waste. Project developers could not even bother to describe at any point in the project documentation just what they expected to do with the power units once the reactors’ useful service life terms were over – even as the Russian legislation is quite clear on requiring that such information be presented in an NPP project.

Furthermore, no population protection measures are detailed in the project documentation, either. The documents state that “a [project] NPP-2006 [station] is designed in such a way that any radiation impact on the population, caused by accidental discharges of radioactive gases and aerosols at the perimeter of the industrial production site or beyond it, is limited as per provisions stipulated in Russian regulatory documents.” What this formulation allows project developers to do is downplay significantly – compared to globally accepted practices – the scope of a potential accident. As a result, no immediate evacuation measures have been worked out to protect the population, nor those of resettlement or urgent mass-scale distribution of iodine pills, in case a severe enough accident does occur. The very assertion that no evacuation or resettlement measures will be needed in case of an accident could result in a situation where the relevant fast-response services would prove unprepared, scrambling to deploy those same indispensable measures in absence of equipment or manpower needed to deal with the sudden disaster.

One has to bear in mind, too, that in July 2009, project chief engineer Grabelnikov publicly confirmed that the likelihood of a major nuclear accident – one that implies a core meltdown – cannot be ruled out 100 percent for a VVER-1200 reactor.

Before the nuclear catastrophe broke out in Japan, it was generally trusted that after Chernobyl, no accident, not even a large-scale one, could lead to radiation escaping the premises of the nuclear power plant in distress. The same understanding of nuclear accidents serves as a basis for safety assessments in the new Russian project in Kaliningrad, too. Now that the Fukushima disaster has put a gruesome end to that guileless belief, major industrial nations like Germany, Switzerland, and Japan itself make the decision to abandon further nuclear construction plans altogether, while many other countries subject their reactors to stress tests to ascertain their true level of reliability. And only Russia is learning no lessons from the tragedy in Japan, not even with respect to its first-generation reactors of the Chernobyl type, which were designed in the former USSR over five decades ago and still remain in operation at certain stations. What does that say about the Russian authorities? If anything, that they are demonstrating wanton negligence for nuclear safety and the safety of the Russian population.

But back to the project of the Baltic NPP. In three years of vigorous meetings and consultations, Rosatom has proved unable to find a single European company that would want to invest into the site. At the same time, the urgent issue of finding such a foreign investor is brought up time and again, as absent this source of funding, the prospects of seeing this project to conclusion look rather dim. Today, desperate to put a move on an enterprise that keeps spinning its wheels, Rosatom in Kaliningrad is struggling to force the role of European investors on Prunskiene and a number of her acquaintances, developers with a mind to land a few construction contracts in the region – not even for the Baltic NPP per se, but rather some infrastructure to be built around the site. In point of fact, Rosatom earlier promised to engage local construction companies for these works.

It would behove Prunskiene to remember that the Baltic NPP project is not only a pair of two dangerous reactors, but, no less importantly, a show of dangerously heedless disregard for safety. But this project can be stopped yet. It can still be shut down to ensure that future generations may live without fear of new nuclear accidents and radioactive contamination. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that the world could produce up to 80 percent of the energy it needs from renewable energy sources by 2050. A mutually beneficial and good-neighbourly partnership between Russian and Lithuania must therefore advance, first and foremost, in the field of environmentally friendly technologies – renewable energy and energy efficiency. And as for politicians, it is high time they stopped playing their dangerous nuclear games.