Prominent environmentalist puts Belarusian jail behind, tells his story

Publish date: October 26, 2009

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG – On October 9, Russian environmentalist Andrei Ozharovsky was detained in Belarus’ Ostrovets during a public hearing on the proposed Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant and sentenced to seven days in local jail on a trumped-up charge of “disturbing public order.” In this interview with Bellona, Ozharovsky tells the story behind his arrest and comments on the critical report he had co-authored on the project and that he tried to distribute at the hearing.

Bellona: What is your general take on the public hearing on choosing Ostrovets as the site for the nuclear power plant (NPP)?

Ozharovsky: I would not call what was going on at Ostrovets Cinema and Concert Hall on October 9 a public hearing. This was a public meeting gathered in support of the NPP, organised by the authorities from the top, using the administrative resource and setting all kinds of obstacles to bar NPP opponents from participation, and well, yeah, giving a free rein to the police…

A real public hearing has to be a competition, doesn’t it, an opportunity to speak both for and against the NPP. A real hearing is an open meeting, not some “closed club,” an “invitation-only” event.

Here, instead, the organisers of the meeting – including [the Energy Ministry], the management of the future NPP, and the local authorities – were trying to pass for a hearing, for a public discussion, a travesty that they had put together.

Bellona: Tell us what happened.

Ozharovsky: I’ll begin at the beginning. I was at the site of the meeting by 9:45 am. Fifteen minutes before they started official registration of the participants. The building where the hearing was taking place had been cordoned off by SWAT teams and heavy-built men in plain clothes, steel guard rails had been put around, and several checkpoints arranged.
Surprised, I was watching a stream of people filing through a checkpoint. I tried to go, too, but the SWAT men didn’t let me through, said I needed an invitation. This there was a serious violation already – entrance and registration to a hearing must be open to anyone who wants it.

I ask the guards where and how I could get an invitation – they’re laughing instead. I said I’d applied for participation beforehand, with the management office of the NPP, with Mr. Petrushkevich. He promised to attend to it, to put me on the list, even to set aside seats in the hall, for “the ecologists.” They say: “Right now we’re letting through organised groups from factories. Each is coming in with a supervisor in charge, all with invitations from the organisers. You wait here. At 10:00, we’ll start admitting everyone else, all in due order.” Indeed, groups of five to ten people, even twenty in some, were pouring in…
At ten, indeed, they started admitting everyone else. I hadn’t realised what the organisers intended by that trick until I got into the lobby. It was packed with people, I was physically struggling to get in, all those lines standing to registration desks. I managed to get registered at 10:10, I was number thirteen. Looked at the other desks – they, too, had twelve, fourteen people registered at each. I took a quick stock: twelve desks with thirteen people each, looks like some hundred and fifty people signed in, at least. I proceed to the hall. There, a few husky men in leather jackets already block the entrance – as before, groups are let in, “loners” are kept out: Groups had their seats reserved for them by their supervisors ahead of time, got it?  

I spotted a few seats that were still empty, in the gallery, at the very top. Saw a girl among the “leather boys,” turned to her, asked her to let me through – Look, there’re still seats left – showed her where. Barely got through. Several activists from the Belarusian Anti-Nuclear Campaign were with me, a colleague from Lithuania, Volodya Chuprov from Greenpeace. We entered, got to our seats. Time is ten-fifteen, they give a call to order: All seats are taken, closing the doors now.
Inside, people seemed to have been sitting there awhile: An old Soviet crime comedy was playing on the screen. What was crime, though, was how the organisers had apparently decided to use such underhanded methods to be able to deny entrance to unwanted parties. Actually, later it turned out that I’d been lucky: Many, many more people who showed up for the hearing by ten o’clock did not even make it to the foyer, let alone the main hall. Running the entire show, also dressed in plain clothes but wearing a badge saying Organising Committee on his chest, was Police Lieutenant Colonel Damut – head of Ostrovets Regional Police Precinct and the same man who later instigated a frame-up against me.

In the main hall, that sweeping control was just as visible. Flanking each row on both sides are sullen-looking young men – of course they’re there, casting stern glances over their neighbours. The audience, huddled as they’ve been into the place, must have relaxed somewhat, since most of them were taken off work to bring them there, and it’s even interesting for them to participate, but only as long as it’s their working hours – from ten to five. Which, by the way, was the secret behind the organisers’ steadfast determination to wrap everything up by no later than 5 p.m.: The minute the working day’s over, everyone’s out the door.

No need to explain the consequences of this: The Organising Committee had a strict screening process to decide who to give the floor to. Two thirds of those who requested it were not given a chance to speak.  

Bellona: So you got registered, you found your way into the main hall. How did it happen that you got detained by the police?

Ozharovsky: The detention was performed by plain-clothed policemen – those same “leather boys.” It was only at the trial that I found out that they were not some hoodlums, not, you know, street thugs.  

It so happened that people sitting next to me in the gallery figured it out that I was an NPP opponent. Not that they rushed to hug me exactly, but they were interested. So I gave them a few publications I had on me – the Chernobyl Lessons1 and that same “Criticism on NPP Environmental Impact Assessment,” a work written by many experts and in which I had taken part. The full title is “Critical Notes on the ‘Statement on Potential Environmental Impact of the Belarusian NPP.’”

We’d prepared it two weeks before this meeting, sent it officially to the Belarusian [Council of Ministries], [Ministry of Energy], [Ministry of Natural Resources]. We thought they’d have a look at it, start discussing it. The conclusions we had made in it were quite serious:

“Materials comprising the ‘Statement on Potential Environmental Impact of the Belarusian NPP (from here on, Environmental Impact Assessment, EIA), as prepared by PNIRUP BelNIPIEnergoprom2 do not contain a genuinely unbiased impact assessment, but are in fact an uncritical reproduction of materials of advertising nature published by the Russian atomic industry.
The lack in the EIA materials of any comprehensive and unprejudiced scientific assessment of the consequences of the construction, operation, potential accidents and incidents, as well as decommissioning, of the NPP does not allow for the use of these materials in conducting a public discussion, including a public hearing.
Project designers have failed to provide in the EIA materials up-to-date, comprehensive and reliable information on the operations planned and their impact on the environment and well being of the population. Information on the main specifications of the design concept, including those pertaining to the natural resources to be used, expected levels of waste, physical parameters, and technologies applied, is incomplete and, in many cases, untruthful.

The most troubling problem is that the scope of radionuclide discharges due to potential accidents has been underestimated by a factor of hundreds or even thousands of times. The extent of territory that may be affected by accident-induced discharges as well as an accident-free operation has been incorrectly determined. As a result, no measures to protect the population or mitigate the consequences of a potential accident have been provided for.

No assessment is provided at all on the impact of decommissioning the NPP. The EIA authors mislead the public with regard to the expected management of spent nuclear fuel and ignore data on the risks imposed by regular “sanctioned” discharges and emissions of radionuclides on human health. The impact of cooling towers on the environment and human health has not been taken into consideration.

The description of potential environmental risk factors associated with the planned activities is incomplete and the potential consequences of such factors are underrated.

The EIA materials contain no description of technologies to be used for the management of radioactive waste, nor of the impact that potential accidents while handling radioactive waste may have on the environment or human health. Nor is there any description of the risks associated with waste storage facilities and repositories.

The value of this option in achieving the stated goals in comparative relation with other options has been incorrectly assessed. The rejection of less dangerous and less costly alternative solutions is, accordingly, unjustified.

This misleads both the public and the responsible decision-makers. The present EIA Statement should be recalled by the party that has commissioned the assessment. Any public discussion based on this assessment should likewise be ceased.”

Seeing that there was an interest to these materials, I decided to go bring back copies of the “Critical Notes” that my colleagues had in a car outside. Spent a long time begging the guards at the entrance to let me out – and let me back in later. They promised they would.

The story was very simple, really. At that improvised checkpoint, the SWAT guys told me no literature was allowed inside at the hearing. I raise objections – weren’t they passing around those nuclear agitprop leaflets at registration? I request that they send for a representative of the Organising Committee, to settle the dispute. So I wait. No one’s coming. Meanwhile, a crowd of “leather boys” gathers around, quietly at first, then they start insisting, more and more aggressively, that I proceed with them into a blue-painted unmarked minibus nearby. I have no idea who they are, ask them to identify themselves, which they ignore completely. I stand my ground – I am a registered participant of the hearing and all that. I even have a seat in the hall and I believe if it’s up to anyone to tell me what I can or can’t do, it will be someone from the Organising Committee, not a bunch of goons that I don’t know who they are or where they come from.

They look annoyed, hustle around me, there are by now six, then seven, then eight of them. They start shoving me around, one of them, this fat guy, stuck his foot out, tripped me, another pushed – I fell down. It later turned out the fat guy was head of the precinct’s public order division…

About fifteen minutes later, a committee representative came out, said: “You cannot come into the building with the publications, without them – be my guest, it’s within your rights.” Nothing I can do about that, so I leave the bag, follow the representative into the building. I barely make two steps when I hear someone bark “Take him down!” behind me. They pulled my right arm up behind my back and shoved me into the blue minibus, after all. “Sit still! Hands on your knees! Do not move!” they yell.
So I sit still, what choice do I have? There’re eight of them there.

It went simple after that. A four-hour questioning at the precinct, only with regard to where and how I had made the copies of the “Critical Notes.” They seized the copies. Slapped together a ridiculous charge of “disorderly conduct.” Then the trial, then seven days in the holding cell of Ostrovets Regional Police Precinct.

There, a cellmate, an old villager, asks me: “What are you in for?” I say: “For an attempt to participate in a public hearing.” I lied to the old man: It wasn’t a hearing, it was a meeting in support of the NPP. Hearing our criticism there would have made the nuclear officials very uncomfortable – we did, after all, had all the figures and facts on hand to prove that they were committing a fraud, downplaying fallout estimations from an accident by 300 times, 3,000 times, in some places. That’s where that lie is coming from, that the extent of impact in case of an accident will be limited to three kilometres. In Finland, the radius of potential impact is a thousand kilometres, and Belarusians are made to believe Rosatom’s claims that it’s no more than three…
1 In 2006, Ozharovsky, a former physics teacher, co-authored a book for high-school teachers on the aftermath of the Chernobyl tragedy, the world’s biggest nuclear catastrophe to date. Drawing on the facts behind the explosion at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s Reactor Block 4 on April 26, 1986, as well as its broad-reaching consequences, the book is a teaching aid aimed to help in preparing classes on a variety of school subjects, such as civil defence, physics, biology, civics etc. (From media reports. – Translator.)

2 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. (From the official site of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Belarus. – Translator.)