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Fundamental problems of the Astravets Nuclear Power Plant under construction in Belarus

Created: 2018.03.29 / Updated: 2018.04.13 15:38

The Astravets NPP project in Belarus is being developed in non-compliance with international standards of environmental and nuclear safety, with recurrent serious violations, repetitive incidences on the construction site of Astravets NPP, poor occupational safety culture, lack of competence and expertise in the project development process on the part of nuclear safety regulatory authority and organisations in charge of construction works of Astravets NPP. The project is accompanied by persistent manipulations with international instruments and public opinion in Belarus and neighbouring countries. 

Lithuania has been raising these concerns ever since 2009 in all competent international organisations (International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Nuclear Safety and Espoo Conventions, Aarhus and Helsinki Water Conventions, in organisations of the European Union and European Nuclear Safety Organisation (WENRA, ENSREG), the United Nations and other organisations). Until now issues regarding safety at the Astravets NPP raised by Lithuania and possible negative impact on Lithuania and the entire region, including Belarus, remain unresolved.

The fundamental problems of the Astravets NPP raising most of concern are the following:  

  • The major violation in the project development of Astravets NPP – selection of an unsuitable site for construction of a NPP. The Astravets site was selected in 2008, i.e. even before launching of a transboundary environmental impact assessment (EIA) required under the Espoo Convention. Such omission is a gross violation of the Espoo convention. It is important to stress that the transboundary EIA on Astravets NPP with Lithuania is still pending; therefore, in accordance with the provisions of the Espoo Convention, construction of the Astravets NPP shall be regarded as illegal. By not coordinating the selection of site for the NPP with Lithuania, Belarus violated the Nuclear Safety Convention. In May 2013, IAEA, taking into account the consequences of accident in Fukushima NPP, adopted a recommendation not to construct nuclear power plants in locations less than 100 km off major cities. Meanwhile, by its decision of 2 November 2013, Belarus decided to launch the construction of Astravets NPP on the site, which is only 40 km away from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. While doing so Belarus violated one of the key nuclear safety requirements. Lithuanian experts believe that in the event of any large-scale accident in Astravets NPP, the negative implications thereof would affect Lithuania’s capital Vilnius and 1/3 of the entire national population.
  • The Astravets site is an unsuitable location for a NPP. Astravets site falls within a heightened seismic risk area in the eastern Baltic region. Since 1616 approximately 40 earthquakes with a magnitude of up to 5 under the Richter‘s scale have been reported in the region. In 1987 at a distance of fewer than 10 km from the Astravets site even 2 earthquakes were reported with the magnitude of 2.5 under the Richter’s scale. This illustrates a heightened seismic activity in the territory. Belarus has failed so far to provide explicit information on the geological structure of the site, the likelihood of enhanced sinkhole formation, the tectonic structure of the site, the system of tectonic fractures and the relationship thereof with the active system of Ašmena fractures. Belarusian scientists themselves who back in 1993 conducted the Feasibility Study on Possible Locations (Potential Sites) for Construction of Nuclear Power Plants within the Territory of the Republic of Belarus noted in the study’s report that after assessing 28 potential sites for constructing NPPs in Belarus, the Astravets site was reported as unsuitable for constructing a NPP.
  • Astravets NPP is being constructed in violation of the Convention on Nuclear Safety, the Espoo and Aarhus Conventions:
    • Having not received any replies from Belarus on the issues of safety of the Astravets NPP’s project that had been raised bilaterally, on 7 June 2011 Lithuania lodged a complaint with the Implementing Committee of the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment (the Espoo Convention). The Meeting of the Parties to the Espoo Convention held from 2 to 5 June 2014 concluded that Belarus, by developing its Astravets NPP project, violated four articles of the Convention:
      • Failed to inform the Lithuanian public about Astravets NPP project (Art. 2.6);
      • Drafted documentation on EIA in an inappropriate manner (Art. 4.2);
      • Failed to hold expert consultations (Art. 5.(a));
      • Decision to commence construction works was made in an inappropriate manner (Art. 6.1 and 6.2).

The Meeting of Parties of the Espoo Convention, held on 13-16 June 2017 in Minsk, left the decision of 2014 regarding Belarus unchanged until an intermediary Meeting of Parties to be held on 5-6 February 2019.

o  Belarus continues to ignore issues on project safety raised not only by Lithuania and other countries of the region on Astravets NPP, but also by its own population. In September 2017, MOP of the Aarhus Convention endorsed a decision stating that Belarus was developing the Astravets NPP project against the provisions of the Convention. The decision VI/8c concerning Belarus stated that:

  • Belarus had no clear mechanism that would allow for meaningful and effective public information and participation in decision-making processes in environmental matters. Also, Belarus’ legal framework did not clearly designate, which decision is considered to be the final decision permitting the activity. It was noted that the decision had to be made publicly available – violation of Art.6 of the Convention;
  • The arrest of four environmental activists by Belarus in 2012 and their related administrative detention or fine constituted harassment, penalization and persecution – violation of Art.3 of the Convention.

It was the third MOP in a row when it was acknowledged that Belarus was implementing the Ostrovets NPP project in non-compliance to the Aarhus Convention. The previous decisions were taken in 2011 and 2014; however, the given recommendations were not implemented. The mentioned decisions were taken after comprehensive analysis of three submissions from Belarus and European NGO’s. Lithuania considers that Belarus violated the rights of the Lithuanian public as well. Therefore, in 2015 Lithuania lodged a complaint to the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee as well.

  • Lithuania stands firm on its position that Belarus has also violated the Nuclear Safety Convention on the following grounds:
    • It failed to assess possible negative impact of Astravets NPP on society and environment in the vicinity to the site of a nuclear installation (Art. 17.2);
    • Selected the construction site for Astravets NPP without consulting the neighbouring Lithuania (Art. 17.4);
    • Failed to ensure that all organizations engaged in activities related to Astravets NPP project development would give clear priority to nuclear safety (Art. 10).
  • Having regard to the fact that Belarus is planning to use the water of the Neris River for cooling off the reactors of Astravets NPP, and noting on the potential impact of this project on the water basin of the Neris and Nemunas rivers, Lithuania continuously raises environmental issues pertaining to Astravets NPP in meeting of the Helsinki Water Convention. It is noteworthy that in the absence of legal regulation between Lithuania and Belarus on the use and protection of water resources of the Nemunas river basin, Lithuania is calling upon Belarus to sign, as soon as possible, the technical protocol for cooperation on issues of management of the Nemunas River basin and responsible use of waters of the river basin which has been under coordination since 2009.
  • Astravets NPP regularly sustains major incidents. In 2016 alone, to the best of Lithuania‘s knowledge, as many as 6 incidents were reported in Astravets NPP. During two of these incidents (on 10 July 2016 and 26 December 2016) two reactor vessels produced by the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom were damaged. One of the reactors fell down from the height of 4.5 metres, the other collided a railway infrastructure frame. The latter was installed in Unit 1 of Astravets NPP in April 2017. It is important to note that a reactor vessel is one of the key safety components of a nuclear power plant. These incidents illustrate that the Belarusian nuclear safety regulatory authority fails to comply with the criteria of independence and competence required of authorities of this type and is manipulated by Rosatom Company. Moreover, the incidents in Astravets NPP demonstrate that the project developers are challenged by systemic problems, such as a poor occupational safety culture, failure to ensure quality control of works, disrespect of instructions, principles of withholding and denying information rather than of openness and transparency dominating communication with the public.
  • Belarus is manifestly manipulating the IAEA SEED mission. Ever since the official launch of Astravets NPP construction back in 2013 Lithuania has been consistently calling upon Belarus to accept the IAEA SEED (Site and External Events Design) mission to carry out an extensive evaluation of appropriateness of the Astravets site for the construction of an NPP within Belarus. The same recommendation was issued in 2014 by the Espoo Convention and the Nuclear Safety Convention. It took 4 years of persistent pressure to compel Belarus to invite IAEA SEED mission from 16 to 20 January 2017. However, the IAEA’s representatives informed Lithuania that that was an incomplete SEED mission. The scope of the mission, which was defined by Belarus itself in accordance with the existing rules, was limited to immaterial project evaluations, leaving out from the mission‘s scope the key evaluations on the seismic activities and geological suitability of the site for a NPP construction as well as the environmental impact assessment. Although the IAEA’s mission analysed a very narrow range of issues (namely, only 1.5 criteria out of 6), by way of manipulating public opinion, Belarus is making overreaching conclusions about the supposed comprehensive evaluation of the entire site and claims that Astravets NPP project is a success.  Lithuania firmly believes that were a full-scope IAEA SEED mission to be carried out, including evaluation of the Astravets site, selection and suitability thereof for a NPP construction, the findings would have been negative. 
  •  EU stress tests for the Astravets NPP. Belarus committed to perform the risk and safety assessments (the stress tests) in 2011, but presented its national stress tests report only on 30 October 2017. The mere fact of submission does not mean that the stress tests are implemented and it cannot be considered as progress. Only when the experts’ team present their conclusions and recommendations, which can be expected by mid 2018, we will be in a position to evaluate actual situation. The recommendations must be implemented before the start of the operation of the NPP. After national assessment, Lithuanian experts identified around 160 questions to the Belarus stress tests report. Stress tests is only one element of a very wide set of nuclear safety requirements and they do not address the most important question concerning site selection criteria as well as other significant questions of seismic, geologic and site research and site suitability for the construction of the NPP. This means that crucial questions related to impact on environment, very low construction quality and culture, multiple severe accidents, which already occurred during the construction, remain unanswered.    
  • Astravets NPP is not going to sustain a heavy airplane crash. In accordance with recommendation issued in 2013 by the Western Europe Nuclear Regulators Association (WENRA), all newly built nuclear power plant structures shall sustain a heavy airplane crash. This recommendation adopted in light of the consequences of Fukushima NPP accident, is applicable irrespective of the fact of the likelihood of such an event and irrespective of the established air corridors. Despite the fact that Lithuania has been calling upon Belarus to evaluate possible impact of a heavy plane crash on Astravets NPP, Belarus declines to do so. Lithuania‘s requirements are based on Finnish experience: Finland, which is constructing an analogous nuclear power plant AES-2006 designed by Rosatom, have determined that its structures would not be able to sustain a heavy airplane crash. After Finland’s request, Rosatom agreed to adjust the initial NPP project by reinforcing the protective shield of the reactor.
  • Astravets NPP is a geopolitical project without economic grounds. On 30 April 2013 President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko in his speech at the Belarusian State Agrarian Technical University said: „Our nuclear power plant and the Russian nuclear power plant in Kaliningrad is a fishbone in the throats of the European Union and the Baltic states“. To make an NPP project economically feasible, first of all it has to have its consumer market. Unit 2 of Astravets NPP is built exclusively for exporting electricity, but Belarus does not have such market.

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