Political rhetoric over Astravets NPP belies EU-Belarus technical cooperation


There is a noticeable disconnect between the dire warnings emanating from Lithuania and the EU’s own tone in discussing its engagement with Minsk on a newly minted Belarusian nuclear facility.

The Astravets nuclear power plant in Belarus, built by Russia’s state atomic energy corporation (Rosatom), officially began operating last November but nonetheless remains the subject of heated disagreement between Minsk and neighbouring Lithuania.

Top Lithuanian officials, including president Gitanas Nausėda, are harshly critical of the facility and its proximity to their country’s capital, and successive governments in Vilnius have lobbied their neighbours – and the European Union as a whole – to join them in opposition to Astravets.

With the nuclear power plant (NPP) now producing electricity, Lithuania’s objective has shifted to keeping electricity from the plant out of Baltic grids.

Against the backdrop of broader political tensions between the EU and the government of Belarus, Lithuania and its allies in the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) committee of the European Parliament are now putting forward the latest in a series of parliamentary resolutions opposing Astravets as a “geopolitical project.”

As has long been the case with the European debate surrounding Astravets, however, there is a noticeable disconnect between the dire warnings emanating from Vilnius and the EU’s own tone in discussing its engagement with Minsk on the newly minted Belarusian nuclear facility.

European Commission and ENSREG involvement with Astravets

As European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson told the European Parliament last March, Gosatomnadzor – the Belarusian nuclear regulatory authority – has been receiving technical assistance from the EU itself within the framework of the Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation. As the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) also explained in its 2018 report on stress tests in Belarus, the group’s mandate to evaluate the Astravets project is based on Minsk’s own decision to volunteer for the process, despite not being an EU country.

With the plant now operational, cooperation between Belarus and the EU is continuing. A planned December visit to the site by ENSREG’s nuclear safety experts is now taking place this month, and ENSREG’s evaluations of the facility to date – including its most recent draft report on Astravets from the end of last year – have been largely positive, with EU officials telling Bloomberg their Belarusian counterparts are moving to address all seven major recommendations to emerge from EU stress testing of the site’s safety protocols.

Belarus’ implementation of those recommendations is the subject of ENSREG’s newest draft report on the country’s National Action Plan for the NPP (itself based on ENSREG findings).

The report, planned for publication after the rescheduled site visit, specifies that six of the seven “high priority issues” to arise from stress testing have already been “adequately addressed” by the Belarusian side, covering the NPP’s safety systems as well as protocols for handling major incidents. ENSREG names just one area – covering earthquakes – as still under assessment pending the site visit, although the report points out that Astravets’ capacity to resist seismic shocks (up to a maximum peak acceleration, or PGA, of 0.12g) surpasses the 0.1059g seismic benchmark it recommends for use at the site.

The rhetoric from Lithuania and other EU member states in the region does not reflect this engagement between the European Commission, ENSREG, and Belarus on the Astravets plant.

Instead, statements from Lithuanian officials regarding the threat ostensibly posed to their country seem to have influenced views of Astravets among many MEPs, pushing them to oppose the project and doubt the validity of the collaboration already taking place between Brussels and Minsk to ensure the safety of eastern Europe’s newest NPP.

Double standards on the treatment of nuclear power?

For example, the language of the resolution now being considered by the European Parliament – drafted by Romanian MEP Cristian Buşoi – describes the NPP (which it refers to as Ostrovets) as a “source of possible threat to the European Union and its Member States with regard to safety, health and protection of the environment” and claims the plant “does not comply with the highest international environmental and nuclear safety standards,” calling for its operations to be suspended until all recommendations from ENSREG’s stress testing are fully implemented – a condition ENSREG itself does not impose.

As ENSREG points out in its draft report, the regulatory group’s findings are not meant to authorise or prevent the authorisation of nuclear plants. Rather, the report emphasises “that a stress test exercise remains a targeted exercise reviewing the safety of certain aspects of a nuclear power plant… with the objective of further safety enhancement. A stress test and the implementation of follow up actions should not be used to justify or authorise the safe operation of a nuclear power plant nor its long-term operation or lifetime extension.”

Buşoi’s resolution nonetheless builds on a narrative thread established by a number of other EP statements regarding Astravets, including a resolution adopted in October 2020 which castigated Belarus’ “construction of unsafe nuclear installations” and “lack of respect for international standards for nuclear safety,” calling into question the country’s implementation of recommendations put forward by ENSREG – despite ENSREG’s own indications to the contrary.

The discord between the political rhetoric surrounding Astravets and the concrete safety recommendations put forward by European nuclear safety experts feeds into a broader trend against nuclear energy in the European Union, even though a number of EU countries rely on comparable NPPs to meet a significant portion of their own electricity needs.

The same VVER-1200 reactor model installed at Astravets is also being used at the Hanhikivi NPP in Finland, while older VVER-213 and VVER-320 reactors are currently in use at NPPs including Hungary’s Paks, Slovakia’s Bohunice and Mochovce, and Czechia’s Dukovany and Temelin.

While it remains to be seen whether ENSREG’s latest visit to Astravets will set minds in Lithuania and in the European Parliament at ease, past experience suggests that is unlikely.

Instead, the political discourse and the concrete technical findings surrounding the NPP seem to be following divergent tracks, with the latter having little impact on the former.

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