Political rhetoric over Astravets NPP belies EU-Belarus cooperation
There is a noticeable separation between Lithuania’s dire warnings and the EU’s own tone in discussing its engagement with Minsk for a newly minted Belarusian nuclear facility.
The Astravets nuclear power plant in Belarus, built by Russia’s state nuclear company (Rosatom), was officially commissioned last November, but remains the subject of heated disagreements between Minsk and neighboring Lithuania.
Senior Lithuanian officials, including President Gitanas Nausėda, are sharply critical of the facility and its proximity to their country’s capital, and successive governments in Vilnius have urged their neighbors – and the European Union as a whole – to join them against Astravets.
With the nuclear power plant (NPP), which now produces electricity, Lithuania’s goal has shifted to keep electricity from the power plant out of the Baltic networks.
Against the background of broader political tensions between the EU and the Belarusian government, Lithuania and its allies in the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) of the European Parliament are now presenting the latest results of a series of parliamentary resolutions against Astravets as a “geopolitical project”.
As has long been the case with the European Astravets debate, however, there is a noticeable separation between the dire warnings from Vilnius and the EU’s own tone when discussing its engagement with Minsk for the newly shaped Belarusian nuclear facility.
Participation of the European Commission and ENSREG in Astravets
As the European Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, told the European Parliament in March last year, Gosatomnadzor – the Belarusian nuclear regulator – has received technical assistance from the EU itself under the Instrument for Cooperation in the Field of Nuclear Safety. As the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) also explained in its 2018 report on stress tests in Belarus, the group’s mandate to assess the Astravets project is based on Minsk’s own decision to volunteer for the process, though it is not an EU country.
Now that the facility is operational, Belarus-EU cooperation will continue. This month, the ENSREG experts on nuclear safety are planning a visit in December. ENSREG’s assessments of the facility to date – including the latest draft report on Astravets from late last year – have been largely positive with EU officials, who tell Bloomberg that their Belarusian counterparts are addressing all seven key recommendations emerging from the EU’s stress tests Site security logs.
The implementation of these recommendations by Belarus is the subject of ENSREG’s latest draft report on the country’s National Action Plan for the NPP (based on the results of ENSREG).
The report, which will be published after the planned on-site visit, indicates that six of the seven “high priority issues” emerging from stress tests have already been “adequately dealt with” by the Belarusian side and that both the NPP’s safety systems as The protocols for NPPs also cover handling of major incidents. ENSREG names only one area – earthquakes – that will be assessed pending the on-site visit, although the report indicates that the ability of Astravets to withstand seismic surges (up to a maximum peak acceleration or PGA of 0.12g), the 0.1059 g exceeds the seismic benchmark it recommends for field use.
The rhetoric of Lithuania and other EU member states in the region does not reflect this commitment between the European Commission, ENSREG and Belarus at the Astravet plant.
Instead, statements by Lithuanian officials regarding the alleged threat to their country appear to have influenced many MPs’ views on Astravets, urging them to oppose the project and question the validity of the already existing cooperation between Brussels and Minsk to protect the security of guarantee Eastern Europe’s newest NPP.
Double standards in the treatment of nuclear energy?
In the language of the resolution, which is currently under consideration by the European Parliament and drafted by the Romanian MEP Cristian Buşoi, the NPP (known as Ostrovets) is identified as a “source of a possible threat to the European Union and its Member States with” on safety, health and environmental protection “and claims that the plant” does not meet the highest international environmental and nuclear safety standards “and demands that the operation be suspended until all recommendations from the ENSREG stress tests have been fully implemented – a condition of ENSREG itself does not specify.
As ENSREG explains in its draft report, the results of the regulatory group are not intended to approve or prevent the approval of nuclear power plants. Rather, the report emphasizes that “a stress test exercise remains a focused exercise testing the safety of certain aspects of a nuclear power plant … with the aim of further improving safety. A stress test and follow-up should not be used to justify or approve the safe operation of a nuclear power plant, nor its long-term operation or its life extension. “
However, the Buşoi resolution builds on a narrative thread established by a number of other EP declarations on Astravets, including a resolution adopted in October 2020 addressing the “building of unsafe nuclear facilities” in Belarus and “failure to comply with international standards for nuclear safety ”. to question the implementation of the recommendations made by ENSREG by the state – despite the contrary advice from ENSREG.
The discrepancy between the political rhetoric surrounding Astravets and the specific safety recommendations of European nuclear safety experts is leading to a broader anti-nuclear trend in the European Union, although a number of EU countries rely on comparable NPPs for a significant portion of it to meet their own electricity needs.
The same VVER-1200 reactor model installed at Astravets is also used at Hanhikivi Nuclear Power Plant in Finland, while older VVER-213 and VVER-320 reactors are currently used in nuclear power plants including Paks in Hungary, Bohunice and Mochovce in Slovakia as well as Dukovany and Temelin in the Czech Republic.
It remains to be seen whether ENSREG’s recent visit to Astravets in Lithuania and the European Parliament will be reassuring. However, past experience suggests that this is unlikely.
Instead, the political discourse and the specific technical knowledge about the nuclear power plant seem to go different ways, with the latter only having a minor impact on the former.
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