Minsk’s cooperation agreement with Moscow on building Ostrovets NPP ratified in closed-door parliament hearing

Construction at the Belarus nuclear power plant. (Photo: Bellona)
Парк тяжелой техники на площадке Островецкой АЭС. Июль 2010 года.
Татьяна Новикова

Publish date: November 3, 2011

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – The Belarusian parliament ratified on October 20 a document that earlier this year put another brick into Russia and Belarus’s highly criticised joint nuclear endeavour – the so-called “agreement on cooperation in the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant.” Legislators in Minsk voted for ratification behind closed doors, and the text of the agreement remains unavailable to the public. What is the Belarusian government hiding from its citizens?

Government cites “national security” as reason for secrecy

During a closed-door hearing of October 20, the House of Representatives of the Republic of Belarus – the lower house of the Belarusian parliament – ratified the intergovernmental “Agreement on Cooperation for the Construction of a Nuclear Power Plant in Belarus” that the Belarusian and Russian governments had signed last March.

This comes after the signing, on October 11, of a contract agreement between Belarus’s state-owned Directorate for Construction of Nuclear Power Plants and Atomstroiexport, the foreign construction wing of the Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom, which sees Russia building the $9.4 billion 2,400 megawatt nuclear power plant (NPP) with two VVER-1200 reactors of the untested AES 2006 (NPP -2006) design in the Belarusian town of Ostrovets.

A statement (in Russian) posted on the House of Representatives’ website said the ratification bill was presented to the legislators by Deputy Minister of Energy Mikhail Mikhadyuk. According to a report run by the Belarusian news agency BelaPAN, “the press service of the lower house explains that the document was adopted in a closed-door hearing because the issues involved have to do with national security.”

The text of the agreement, inked by Russia and Belarus last March 15, has not been published, and requests to have it made available for the public – such as one filed by the Belarusian ecological NGO Ekodom (Ecohome) – have been denied.

Across the border: Agreement yet to be ratified, but is applied “provisionally”

On the Russian side, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation has since made the intergovernmental agreement available for public access (in Russian) on its website. The agreement, however, has a provisional status, and says, in Item 1 of Article 21: “The present Agreement is applied provisionally starting with the date of signing and comes into force starting with the date of receiving, via diplomatic channels, of [the last] written notification stating the fulfilment by the Parties of internal procedures required for it to come into force.

Unlike in Belarus, where the agreement has passed the ratification procedure by the national parliament – after it was introduced as a bill in the lower house – no equivalent bill is found in the official database of documents (in Russian) under consideration or development in the Russian parliament, the State Duma.

Furthermore, Article 5 of the published text determines that the cooperation for the construction of the Belarusian NPP is conducted based on agreements or contracts signed between the customer party and the primary contractor. But given the “provisional” status, which is applied to the cooperation agreement before it enters into legal force in Russia, it remains an open question whether the contractor, Russia’s Atomstroiexport, is fully authorised to sign any contract agreements of the kind that was signed on October 11.

Belarus violates a number of laws by signing and ratifying NPP cooperation agreement, lawyers say

Belarus is a signatory to two international ecological treaties that have a direct bearing on the development of such projects as the nuclear power plant in Ostrovets –  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.

Critics of the future NPP – both among environmental organisations in neighbouring countries and at government level in Lithuania, which has repeatedly voiced its concern over the plans to build the site in such close proximity to its border – have pointed out a number of stark inconsistencies between the decisions and steps undertaken by Belarus in the Ostrovets project and the regulations of these two conventions, which guarantee access to ecological information about an industrial project to the population of the host country as well as countries potentially affected by the project.

But official Minsk denies access to full information about the Ostrovets project. Ekodom’s request to see the text of the intergovernmental NPP cooperation agreement, filed with the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus, was denied in a letter Ekodom received from the Belarusian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, which says in part: “[…] please be informed that the draft of the Agreement is a document that regulates terms and conditions for the implementation of works at the [Ostrovets] site and it is not ecological information.”   

According to Irina Sukhiy, Ekodom’s chair of the board, the cooperation agreement does in fact contain ecological information if only because it governs the management of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) that will be generated at the future plant, among other issues.

“As we have learnt from the Russian press, the intergovernmental agreement touches on the management of spent nuclear fuel from the Belarusian NPP, something that has direct relevance to the environment,” Sukhiy told Bellona in a comment.

Ekodom’s legal counsel Grigory Fyodorov believes the Belarusian government’s refusal to provide the text of the NPP cooperation agreement is a direct violation of Article 8 of the Aarhus Convention, “Public participation during the preparation of executive regulations and/or generally applicable legally binding normative instruments,” which says:

“Each Party shall strive to promote effective public participation at an appropriate stage, and while options are still open, during the preparation by public authorities of executive regulations and other generally applicable legally binding rules that may have a significant effect on the environment.”

This article of the convention holds the signatory parties to the obligation of fixing sufficient time-frames for effective public participation, publishing or making otherwise publicly available draft rules and other legally binding documents, and providing the public with the opportunity to comment, directly or through representative consultative bodies.

The result of the public participation shall be taken into account as far as possible,” the convention says.

“At issue here is the public’s participation in making environmentally significant decisions,” Ekodom’s Fyodorov said. “Article 8 of the Aarhus Convention is the most poorly observed here [in Belarus…].”

Fyodorov’s colleague from the Belarusian Legal Transformation Center, Olga Smolyanko, who also heads the center, says that publication of draft laws in Belarus is not of an obligatory nature.

This, she says, creates a fundamental problem: Because draft laws are not made available for the public, citizens have no opportunity to participate in public discussions of current legislative initiatives and the state can pass new laws without giving due consideration to public opinion. According to Smolyanko, this state of affairs defies the principles of the country’s constitution.

“Failure to provide the citizens with information that pertains to their rights and lawful interests runs contrary to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus. The main law of our country entitles its citizens to obtaining information that pertains to their lawful rights and interests,” Smolyanko told Bellona in a comment.

Smolyanko believes another law was also breached when Belarus signed and ratified its intergovernmental agreement with Russia on cooperation for the construction of the Ostrovets NPP. The law “On the use of atomic energy,” in effect in Belarus, enforces the obligation to “provide full, accurate, and timely information pertaining to activities associated with the use of atomic energy.”

Minsk ratified its own growing dependence on big brother Moscow

Energy independence has been broadly used by nuclear proponents in Belarus as an argument in favour of the Ostrovets NPP project. For the past several years, the Belarusian government has attempted to buttress its unflinching stance with regard to its NPP construction plans with the rationale that Belarus’s energy independence could be achieved with the new nuclear power plant – and, notably, fuel supplies from producers other than Russia.

Belarus already depends heavily on Russia for oil and natural gas supplies, and bitter spats between the two countries have previously arisen over supply and transit tariffs.

Speaking at a June 30, 2010 parliamentary meeting, First Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Vladimir Semashko said China and Kazakhstan could also produce nuclear fuel for the Belarusian NPP as both these countries have uranium deposits at their disposal.

“Thus, by the time the Belarusian NPP is taken online, it will not be just Russia that we will be able to buy uranium fuel from,” a BELTA report (in Russian) published on the website of the Belarusian publication Znamya Yunosti quoted Semashko as saying.

But the well-known Belarusian physicist Yury Voronezhtsev, who served on the Supreme Soviet commission that investigated the causes of the 1986 nuclear catastrophe at Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant at the time both Belarus and Russia, as well as Ukraine, were still part of the Soviet Union, believes Minsk’s decision to bind itself with the joint NPP project defeats the very purpose of achieving the coveted goal of energy independence from Russia.

Rosatom will build the new station with funding that Belarus will obtain as credit from Russia, and Russia will also be where fresh fuel for the Ostrovets NPP will be coming from – not to mention the needed equipment and engineering expertise.

And the text of the recently ratified intergovernmental agreement, in Item 1 of Article 9, plainly states that the Belarusian side will be responsible for purchasing Russia-made fresh nuclear fuel assemblies for the new NPP for the entire period that the two Ostrovets units slated for construction will remain in service, in accordance with long-term contracts and based on agreed-upon prices (with global nuclear fuel market prices taken into account).

This will seemingly undermine the argument that the nuclear propaganda from official Minsk relied on for many years – that any fuel will do to power the Russia-built NPP in Ostrovets.

“Fulfilling the provisions of the [intergovernmental] agreement [with Russia] will affirm Belarus’s complete energy dependence on Russia,” Voronezhtsev told Bellona. “The hydrocarbon monopoly is compounded with that of nuclear energy. All the NPP-related financing, construction, equipment and fuel supplies, [and] waste management – all of that is done by one country, one corporation, even – Rosatom. Under these circumstances, any talk about enhancing national energy independence is simply laughable.”

Who will benefit from the united Russian-Belarusian power grid?

The intergovernmental agreement on cooperation for the construction of the Ostrovets site was signed and ratified by Belarus together with another important Russian-Belarusian document whose official title is “The Agreement between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the Republic of Belarus on Certain Measures to Guarantee the Parallel Work of the United Power Grid of the Russian Federation and the United Power Grid of the Republic of Belarus.”

According to the information on the House of Representatives’ website, “the said agreement regulates the implementation of a coordinated policy of joint development and operation of existing electric power generation sites and those under construction for the purpose of creating conditions for a stable supply of electric power to the consumers of the two countries.”

At the same time, this stated goal notwithstanding, the agreement also envisions the establishment of a “joint venture with the aim of implementing cross-border projects with third-party countries for the installation of DC lines, [and] carrying out and developing export, via the electric grid infrastructure created by this joint venture, of electric power generated in Belarus and Russia, as well as electric power from third-party countries,” the information posted on the website of the House of Representatives said.

Voronezhtsev believes it is no accident that this joint venture is being created at the same time as Belarus attempts to push into the end zone with the nuclear power plant project Minsk has been ramrodding through despite vigorous opposition both in neighbouring countries and among its own population. According to Voronezhtsev, the likely objective here is for Russia to secure  control over the future export of electric power generated at Ostrovets.

As the construction of the nuclear power plant places a new generating capacity on Belarus’s map, it will, in Voronezhtsev’s opinion, automatically require upgrades of power lines and substations.

“But that the agreement on the operation of the united energy grid puts this specific emphasis on cross-border sties, on ‘implementation of joint projects for the modernisation and construction of sites of electric power generation, as well as of the electric grid infrastructure [shared] with neighbouring energy grids,’ would indicate, of course, the Russian side’s interest in getting involved in [Belarus’s] export of electric power,” Voronezhtsev told Bellona. “Russia does not share its border with Belarus in the area where Ostrovets NPP is planned to be built, so implied here, clearly, are supplies to third countries.”

Spent nuclear fuel from Belarusian NPP could cause another pricing dispute

Item 2 of Article 9 of the recently ratified NPP cooperation agreement provides for the repatriation of spent nuclear fuel generated at the Ostrovets site to the country of origin, Russia: “The nuclear fuel purchased from Russian implementing organisations and generated as spent nuclear fuel in the reactors of the NPP’s units shall be returned to the Russian Federation for reprocessing on conditions to be determined by the Parties in a separate agreement.”

This, according to Atomstroiexport’s president Alexander Glukhov, suggests two different interpretations. In an interview (in Russian) he gave the Belarusian news agency BELTA last August, Glukhov said:

“The Belarusians have two options. Either a decision is made and a separate document is drafted for the repatriation of spent nuclear fuel to the territory of the Russian Federation, with the products of reprocessing returned back [to Belarus], which is what the intergovernmental agreement is saying. Or the Belarusian side can make the decision to build a dry [spent nuclear fuel] storage facility at the site. The customer party will have this choice to make out of the two options, based on the economic, technological, and other factors.”  

However, it is unclear whether the second course of action – with Belarus storing its spent nuclear fuel in an on-site storage facility at Ostrovets – is a legitimate option, because Article 9 of the intergovernmental NPP cooperation agreement remains in effect even after the agreement itself ceases to be.

This points to a high likelihood that the first option, repatriation of Belarusian SNF to Russia – and Belarus accepting back the waste generated during reprocessing – will be the most realistic scenario. And the phrase, in Article 9, “on conditions to be determined by the Parties in a separate agreement” plays a key role in whether it is also the most feasible one.

In January 2010, environmentalists with the Moscow-based ecological group Ecodefense! and the Anti-Nuclear Campaign of Belarus expressed concerns (in Russian) over the prospect of Belarusian SNF deliveries to Russia. Aside from transportation and other safety-related issues – such as that the resulting radioactive waste that Belarus will have to accept back after reprocessing will total up to 200 tonnes per every tonne of repatriated SNF – one pressing problem arises from the fact that no reprocessing facility capable of handling SNF generated in VVER-1200 reactors, the model slated for operation at Ostrovets, exists or is even envisioned for construction in Russia, while storage facilities are filled to capacity.

And, according to Ecodefense!’s co-chair Vladimir Slivyak, the reprocessing and storage capacity problem puts the clause on repatriation of Belarusian spent nuclear fuel at odds with the Russian legislation, which prohibits import of radioactive waste into Russia for storage or disposal.

Furthermore, it remains an open question whether Belarus will be able to afford Russia’s reprocessing fees.

Sergei Novikov, head of Rosatom’s communications department, earlier told the European Radio for Belarus that “this is absolutely a market service, and there exists this international practice whereby [spent nuclear] fuel is taken back for reprocessing for a [negotiated] price.”

Rosatom’s SNF storage prices did in fact turn out to be prohibitively high for Ukraine, which also returns spent nuclear fuel of Russian origin after it is burnt in its reactors. In his part of the 2005 report entitled “Import of Nuclear Waste: Minimal Profit for Maximum Radioactive Waste” (in Russian) and prepared jointly with Peter Diehl of the World Information Service on Energy’s (WISE) Uranium Project, Ecodefense!’s Slivyak thus described the Ukrainian situation: “The cost of storing Ukrainian spent nuclear fuel in Russia has grown by 70 percent since 1995, and Ukraine now owes [Russia’s Krasnoyarsk Region in Siberia, where SNF is held in temporary storage] around $10 million in storage fees. […] Ukraine intends to cease export of its SNF back to Russia.

In estimates done by Russian experts, SNF reprocessing services could cost Belarus over $3 billion in market prices over the entire period of operation of the new NPP in Ostrovets. This is why some fear the terms of the separate agreement that is to govern repatriation of Belarusian spent nuclear fuel to Russia might become another bone of contention between the two states – much like the bargaining bouts Moscow and Minsk have already engaged in over oil and gas deliveries from Russia.