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.
“Belarusian Authorities only later confirmed the accidents after the media reported on them,” complained Vitalijus Auglys, Director of the Pollution Prevention Department of the Ministry of Environment of Lithuania. He explained to me that, “If something went wrong after the power plant were operational, would they tell us immediately or wait to be confronted? How many of our people will be exposed to radiation before they admit to such an accident?”
At the Lithuanian ministry of foreign affairs, top lawmakers are engaged in bilateral talks with their Belarusian counterparts. Rolandas Kačinskas, Political Director of the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, soon discovered careless practices and a dangerous stubbornness. “When they assessed the site for the construction of the NPP, they only measured the level of population [around the site of the nuclear power plant] only on the Belarusian side,” he told me. “They did not measure the population density on the Lithuanian side of the border, which is extremely high. This reveals it is not a good site for construction. There should be an independent supervision commission, which supervises all aspects of the construction of the nuclear power plant. When we presented this idea to Belarus, they said, ‘we have supervision of our own in place. There is no need.’”
Auglys and his office have raised issue with what he says are insincere attempts at “just barely fulfilling” IAEA requirements. “The Espoo Convention which Belarus has signed requires Belarus to send us a translated environmental impact assessment, including transboundary impact. They sent us a report that was ‘Google translated’ into Lithuanian. It made no sense,” said Auglys, “In the end, they provided no methodology to their findings of Astravets being the best site.”
“Russia has proved for some years that it tends to use energy as a geopolitical weapon,” charged Ausra Semaskiene, Ambassador at Large at the Economical Security Policy Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania . In 2006 the oil refinery in Mazeikiai was effectively shut down when Russia closed the only pipeline to the region. “The oil refinery was sold to the Polish, who competed with a Russian company to buy it. After the deal was final, in 2006, Russia closed the oil pipe due to an ‘accident’ and has never reopened it,” with subtext implying Russia was playing geopolitics. Since then, Lithuania has relied on sea transport for their oil and natural gas imports.
“What we want is for [Belarus] to stop the construction of the reactor,” said Kačinskas. “It’s not that we are against nuclear power, we are against the irresponsible use of it. At the least we want more access and more accountability. We want assurances that if there are problems we will be the first to know. Our position is clear: Since Belarus has not fulfilled major international commitments – has not accomplished IAEA’s Site and External Events Design Review Service (SEED); has not undertaken comprehensive risk and safety assessment tests; has not established an international commission of experts for an in-depth analysis of Astravets case; and therefore it poses extreme safety threat for the whole region and the European Union – Lithuania demands that Belarus suspends the construction works at the Astravets site.”
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.
Ari Beser is an author and filmmaker who used his Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship (2016-2016) to give voice to the hundreds of thousands of people directly affected by nuclear technology today. He is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both B-29s that dropped atomic bombs on Japan during World War II.