After two years of fruitless talks with its eastern neighbor, Lithuania has finally brought its complaint over Belarus’s building a nuclear power plant right on its doorstep to the authority that enforces the Espoo Convention – an international agreement covering industrial projects that may potentially bring environmental harm across state borders. Both Lithuania and Belarus are Espoo signatories, but Belarus denies any violations and threatens a retaliatory complaint over Lithuania’s own nuclear project. With the two countries attacking one another’s project’s safety claims, at least one clear conclusion emerges from the conflict: What nuclear technologies are capable of generating besides power is serious safety concerns.
The UN’s Economic Commission for Europe’s Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context – or the Espoo Convention, called so because it was signed in the Finnish town of Espoo in 1991 – is the main international legal act serving as the basis for evaluations of transboundary ecological risks carried by this or that industrial project implemented in an individual country.
Using the provisions of this document, Lithuania was trying to negotiate with Belarus the best advisable location for Belarus’s controversial nuclear power plant project, a first that this Eastern European state is attempting to the dismay of many among its own population and criticism on the part of environmentalists and a number of European governments. Belarus intends to build its plant with Russia’s help in a town of Ostrovets, in Grodno Region – only a handful of kilometres away from the European border and Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius.
Fed up with two years of futile talks insisting that Belarus move its construction site away from the Lithuanian border and produce full and truthful information about the potential impact the plant may have on Lithuania’s environment and population health, Vilnius finally submitted a complaint to the Committee for the Implementation of the Espoo Convention. The complaint was sent on June 7.
Lithuania’s seven-page statement requests that the Implementation Committee and the Espoo Secretariat apply their mandate to convince Belarus to do two things, both of principal significance: Commission a new environmental impact assessment (EIA) study that could provide a more objective evaluation of the plant’s potential risks and dangers, and find another site for the NPP's construction.
The existing EIA document, compiled by official Belarus, has been the subject of vigorous criticism by Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Russian environmentalists, who say the document downplays considerably the harm it could inflict on the region’s environment and population.
Stating its displeasure over Belarus’s choice of location, Lithuania forwards a number of hefty arguments. One is that Ostrovets is only 50 kilometres away from downtown Vilnius. In an official note sent to Belarus via diplomatic channels last autumn, Lithuania wrote that Belarus’s decision to build such a site in such close proximity to the Lithuanian capital undermined the very foundations of Lithuania’s national security: Should a severe accident occur at the new NPP, followed by a massive discharge of radioactive substances, Lithuania will be forced to evacuate all of its governing bodies and institutions.
Vilnius is also the largest Lithuanian city and the estimated toll that a forced evacuation would take on its inhabitants and the country may well be worth the concern.
The Lithuanians also cite in their complaint the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) fourth safety principle (see IAEA’s Fundamental Safety Principles, SF-1, 2006), which stipulates that “for facilities and activities to be considered justified, the benefits that they yield must outweigh the radiation risks to which they give rise.”
Lithuania also refers to the estimations done by researchers from its Institute of Physics (now, Centre for Physical Sciences and Technology) in their 2010 Expert Evaluation of the Nuclear Power Plant in Belarus (Annex 5), which show that an adverse event arising from a range of accident scenarios at the NPP would, under unfavourable circumstances, subject the health of the population of Vilnius and neighbouring territories to a real and unacceptable threat.
Another argument that Lithuania is using against the current choice of the future NPP's location is that the water the plant will be drawing to cool its reactors will be from the river Neris. The Neris, which is called Vilia in Belarus, is the second largest river in Lithuania and flows through Vilnius. Lithuania is understandably concerned over the potential environmental damage the river may be subjected to during the plant’s operation, including not just the thermal impact of the service water, but also what Belarus’s official EIA assessment refers to as radioactive and chemical contamination “within allowable limits.”
But the major part of the Lithuanian complaint is focused on allegations that Belarus has committed a number of violations of the Espoo Convention while pursuing its Ostrovets NPP project. According to the Lithuanians, Belarus did not follow proper procedure when estimating the potential environmental impact of its future plant and has withheld key information about the project from its neighbour.
In particular, the complaint says, Lithuania has not received from Belarus the full version of the EIA study regarding the new station. The materials in question – some three and a half thousand pages – were submitted for a state environmental assessment in Belarus and were also in February 2010 made available, though with significant restrictions applied, to a public commission that sought to conduct an independent environmental evaluation of the project. But Lithuania is still waiting to see these documents, despite having notified Belarus of its wishes.
The Lithuanian complaint now states that by failing to produce the documents, Belarus is violating the Espoo Convention, which stipulates that when initiating an industrial project that may have cross-border impact, the country that starts it – so-called “Party of Origin” – must ensure that the communities of the states that become exposed to potential risks – so-called “Affected Parties” – are all afforded the same opportunities to receive information about and discuss the relevant environmental impact documentation.
According to Lithuania’s complaint, Belarus is actually yet to give a clear answer as to which of the many decisions regarding whether or not it will even build the plant has been chosen as the final one, which “causes various misunderstandings and misinterpretations.”
Belarus threatens retaliation
As it happens, Belarus has its own grievances to air with respect to its western neighbour’s own nuclear plans.
On the eve of 2010, Lithuania pulled the plug on Ignalina nuclear power plant in Visaginas, a Soviet-built station with two RBMK-1500 reactors that the European Union stipulated had to be to shut down as a prerequisite to this country’s ascension to the union. But Vilnius is looking to build new reactors at Visaginas to replace Ignalina, something that contributes to an ever tightening diplomatic tangle in a region now trapped in what environmentalists fear is fast becoming a deadly nuclear noose – with Belarus’ Ostrovets, Lithuania’s Visaginas, and Russia’s Baltic NPP, under construction in Kaliningrad Region, all pursued with unrelenting zeal.
And despite the fact that it has been several years since Lithuania completed its own environmental impact assessment procedure, the Visaginas project has, for Belarus, remained a sizable axe to grind – though one that it has only now chosen to make use of. Belarus, while not without grounds for a complaint over its neighbour’s EIA consultations, has kept its resentment to itself until the very moment the Lithuanians decided to take theirs to the Espoo authorities. It was only at the press conference on July 19 in Minsk that the Belarusian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection’s head of department for state environmental impact studies Alexander Andreyev announced Belarus would make sure that the Espoo Secretariat received a counter-complaint from Minsk over the project in Visaginas.
The new NPP, just like its predecessor Ignalina, would be built in the same town of Visaginas, if only at a different site than the old station. As such, it will be located near the Lithuanian-Belarusian border and, like Ignalina, will draw cooling water from Lake Drisviaty (Druksiai, in Lithuanian), which, like the Neris, is shared by the two countries. This, the potential damage that the nuclear power plant will do to Lake Drisviaty, is among the main of Belarus’s grievances.
According to Andreyev, Lithuania has yet to acknowledge any of Belarus’s repeated demands to make an assessment of the thermal impact on the lake as compared to those values that were obtained before the 1978 built Ignalina was put into operation.
Likewise, said Andreyev, Lithuania has still not provided information on the cumulative impact that the sites in Visaginas – both the old station and the new nuclear infrastructure – have effected on Belarus and, in particular, the area of Braslav Lakes, an erstwhile ecologically pristine recreational parts popular with the Belarusians.
Last but not least, Belarus is not happy over the fact that the three-kilometre-wide sanitary protection zone around the new plant is expected to overlap with Belarusian territory.
In a claim mirroring that of Lithuania, Andreyev says the EIA report for the new Lithuanian plant fails to provide the kind of key information that would be needed to evaluate its full potential impact on the environment and population health in Belarus. “The EIA report on the Visaginas nuclear power plant that Lithuania has made available to Belarus examines a number of reactors – the US-Japanese AP100, the French EPR-1660, the Canadian ACR-1000, as well as the Russian-made NPP-91/99, and other models, but no final choice has been made. How does one assess environmental impact without having chosen the reactor?” Andreyev said in comments to Bellona.
Besides, said Andreyev, the American-Japanese and French models mentioned in the Lithuanian EIA report have not yet been built anywhere in the world. Ironically, this is the same point of concern that both Russian and Belarusian environmentalists keep bringing up with respect to the Ostrovets project, where Russia’s new and yet untested in commercial operation NPP-2006 project is expected to be used.
As this dragged out dispute goes on, one thing is becoming clear – that today’s nuclear technologies are no more reassuring than old nuclear power plants, those in which the world that has seen Chernobyl and Fukushima may no longer have much confidence.
Both Lithuania and Belarus are well aware of the risks even as the arguments each side is using against the other’s project reflect concerns it would rather ignore while pursuing its own.
But the “golden principle” of NPP siting, for which much was argued in Soviet-time research institutes of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences – “farther away from me, closer to my neighbour” – is fast losing purchase in a modern reality where industrial practices are bound by international obligations and closely monitored by independent third parties.
Whether or not Belarus or Lithuania find support within the Espoo and Aarhus authorities to promote their own nuclear interests and block those of their neighbour, there is a third solution, one of which environmental organisations of Belarus, Lithuania, and Russia keep reminding their governments: Choose the non-nuclear path.