Vilnius, Lithuania–A tiny European country at the edge of the western world worries that it is in the path of what could be the next Chernobyl-level disaster. The government of Lithuania fears a Russian nuclear reactor under construction in its eastern neighbor, Belarus, poses a risk to security to the entire Baltic region. The controversial plant will operate near the town of Astravets, 100 miles from the capital and largest city in the Republic of Belarus, Minsk, but only 20 miles from Lithuania’s capital Vilnius.
I spent some time with Lithuanian diplomats and officials last fall to research this issue. They have called Belarus’s practices irresponsible, and have gone so far as to accuse Russia of blatant geopolitics in an attempt to gain more energy dominance within the EU. Pravda, a Russian state media outlet, has made no secret of this, and stated this plant will be managed by a joint venture between Belarus and Russia to provide energy to the EU.
What you need to know:
- One fifth of Belarus was contaminated from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986.
- According to Lithuanian officials, there have been six reported accidents at the Astravets site that have leaked to the press, including two deaths, and the fall of the reactor case
- According to Lithuania, Belarus authorities did not report these accidents until after the reports leaked.
Nuclear power is a sore subject in a region still contaminated by radioactive fallout. “Many people will never forget that April weekend when the Chernobyl reactor exploded,” explained Auste Valinciute, a Ph.D candidate at the Vilnius University, whose research focuses on the dissemination of public health information.
“Due to the culture of secrecy that prevailed in the Soviet era, people were not informed about the disaster for several days,” Valinciute told me. “So instead of staying indoors to minimize their exposure to the radioactive Chernobyl cloud, they went about their daily lives as if nothing had happened: They ran errands, went to the market to buy food. Children played in the streets.”
Since construction was announced in 2011, the Astravets reactor has been plagued by a series of accidents—including the deaths of contractors, and the fall of the 330-ton reactor casing from a height of four meters.
Contingency plans are being drawn up now in case the worst happens. If the nuclear plant reached core meltdown, a third of the Lithuanian population, including the most populated city of Vilnius with over 1 million, would face evacuation.
Multiple offices within the Belarusian government did not respond to requests for comment. The first reactor is expected to be operational in 2019. The second could be operational in 2020.