Lithuania Fears Belarusian Nuclear Plant Hasn’t ‘Learned Lessons Of Chernobyl’ via RadioFreeEurope

By Matthew Luxmoore

ASTRAVETS, Belarus — Mikalay Ulasevich was running in municipal elections in July 2016 when a local resident alerted him to a major accident at a nuclear power plant under construction close to this town in northwestern Belarus.

Workers had dropped a 330-ton reactor vessel from a height of several meters while attempting to install it, he was told, and officials were trying to keep the incident under wraps.


As a member of the opposition United Civic Party and an outspoken critic of authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Ulasevich was campaigning on a promise to thwart the controversial project funded by a subsidiary of Russian state nuclear energy monopoly Rosatom. 

But it wasn’t until two weeks after he learned of the incident that he decided to share the news. In a Facebook post questioning the project’s safety record, he asked whether Belarusian officials had notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the accident or told neighboring Lithuania, whose capital, Vilnius, lies a mere 40 kilometers from the Astravets plant.


“This is a threat to our national security, public health, and environment,” Lithuanian Energy Minister Zygimantas Vaiciunas told RFE/RL in an interview in Vilnius. “The key question is the site selection, which was done politically — geopolitically.”


Because of its location downwind from Chernobyl, Belarus bore the brunt of that fallout. Its own plans for a nuclear power plant, announced in the 1980s, were shelved as the Soviet leadership and society at large grappled with the consequences of the tragedy. Now, critics say Belarus’s decision to forge ahead with the plant near Astravets is a testament to the country’s failure to draw conclusions from its past.

“The lessons that were given 30 years ago in Chernobyl have not been learned,” Vaiciunas said.


The site near Astravets will run third-generation pressurized-water reactors distinct from earlier models used in Japan and Ukraine and equipped with safety measures aimed at precluding the kind of accidents that happened there: from so-called passive safety systems capable of triggering an automatic shutdown to a “core catcher” device installed in a concrete pit beneath the reactor that would trap molten fuel in case of overheating and make it nearly impossible for radiation to infiltrate the environment.

The same Russian-made VVER-type reactors that will be used near Astravets are slated for installation in a range of other countries including Finland, where Rosatom — which has emerged as the world’s leading nuclear reactor supplier — is building another power plant amid a global push to install more than 30 of its reactors in deals worth over $100 billion. 

Geopolitics In Play?
But while the Finnish regulator has imposed strict safety criteria pending approval of the project, Lithuania says, Belarus is launching its first reactor without completing all stages of a “stress test” — an EU risk-and-safety assessment of a plant’s ability to withstand damage from hazards.


In the meantime, its government is already preparing for a potential disaster. It has bought up 900,000 euros ($1 million) worth of iodine tablets in the event of a radiation leak, which Vilnius says could affect a third of Lithuania’s population of 2.8 million. And it’s holding drills across the country to test its readiness and ability to evacuate citizens should the unthinkable happen.

“It depends on the speed of the wind, [but] we could have only a couple of hours after a release to make decisions — for example, to evacuate,” said Lukauskas of the nuclear-safety regulator, one of the many state institutions involved in the drills. “And until the release reaches the Lithuanian border.”


“This is a military-political project, not an economic one,” Ulasevich said of the nuclear plant. “These tracking stations and army bases have been sprouting up like mushrooms after a summer rain.”

In Vilnius, officials acknowledge they have no way of preventing the plant’s launch, or strong-arming Belarus into making concessions over its sovereign territory. But Vaiciunas hopes that the country’s continued vocal opposition will encourage countries and companies to boycott the project, just as it has done.

When the Chernobyl catastrophe struck, he said, “the key problem was not the accident itself, but the fact nobody was talking about it.”

“That’s the fear for us,” he said. “You can’t trust a country which is not communicating with you.”

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