Nuclear powerLithuania: New Belarusian Nuclear Plant Hasn't “Learned Lessons of Chernobyl”

By Matthew Luxmoore

Published 14 January 2020

Belarus is launching its first nuclear 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. 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.

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.

Everybody knew about it, or almost everybody, but no one dared reveal it publicly,” Ulasevich recalled recently at his house in the nearby village of Varnyany, with the plant’s gargantuan cooling towers visible on the horizon. “They’d be putting themselves in the firing line.”

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.

It’s likely the small Baltic country was already aware. Since the project was announced by presidential decree in 2008, backed by a $10 billion loan from Moscow, Lithuanian officials have waited with trepidation for Minsk to declare construction complete. Now, with its delayed launch slated to take place within months, their campaign to scupper those plans has shifted into high gear.

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.”

Lessons Learned?
Eastern Europe knows that nuclear power can be both a blessing and a curse. The April 1986 explosion of Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl plant, just south of Belarus in Ukraine, reverberated with catastrophic consequences as tainted clouds spread deadly radioactive particles across the region. The Soviet leadership restricted information about the accident and acted sluggishly, holding off evacuation of the local population for 36 hours. Another nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, the deadliest since Chernobyl, exacerbated global fears over the double-edged sword of atomic energy.