Chernobyl 2.0 – A Real Danger or An Irrational Fear?

Dani Podgoretskaya

As the Belarussian government finishes construction of the controversial Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant, multiple international experts express their concerns over the project. The Lithuanian energy minister, Zygimantas Vaiciunas, even went as far as calling the project “a threat to our national security, public health, and the environment.”

Ostrovers Vilnius

Photo: Ostrovets is to Vinyus as Heathrow is to London (Credit: WSJ)

Located near the Belarus – Lithuania border, only 40km from Vilnius, the nuclear plant is due to open in 2019. Many find the idea of constructing another nuclear station in a country so deeply affected by the Chernobyl disaster only 33 years ago a paradox in itself.  Amidst such criticisms, however, Minsk continues to defend the project as safe and beneficial. If the government is not completely accurate in this assessment, the Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant can create a disaster with thousands of casualties not only in Belarus but also in the rest of Europe.

The project was confirmed back in 2008 amidst controversy and protests. With the memory of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster still fresh in the national consciousness, thousands of Belarussians participated in peaceful protests against the Ostrovets project. Most notably, in April 2008, the annual Chernobyl Disaster (Chernobilskiy Shlyax) rally quickly turned into a demonstration.

Chernobylski Shlyax

Photo: Chernobylski Shlyax 2008; the poster reads “antinuclear resistance” (credit: Naviny.by)

Residents of the capital, Minsk, marched around the centre sporting t-shirts and posters with messages varying from ironic – “nuclear energy is a dead end” – to rather straightforward – “we object to the nuclear plant”. Yet, Belarus, a country which does not exactly pride itself on government transparency and openness, largely ignored the dissatisfaction with its plans.

Soon, Russia, yet another self-proclaimed East European democracy, offered Minsk a loan for 10 billion US dollars. Towards the end of 2011, Rosatom, a Russian company, began the lengthy process of Ostrovets Nuclear Power Station construction. The Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko, made an ambitious declaration – Ostrovets shall soon become “the most progressive city” in Europe.

Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant

Photo: Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant Construction (Credit: Sputnik International)

Unfortunately, Lithuania did not share Lukashenka’s enthusiasm. Not only did Vinyus object the premise of the project but also, for the lack of a better word, its shady execution. In 2013, for example, Lithuania complained that Belarus failed to address any questions from the Lithuanian government regarding the safety of the plant. It is hard to accuse Vilnius of excessive pedantism when even the report on the safety of the station submitted to Latvia was translated using the trusty good old Google Translate. Although it is hard to judge whether this was a provocation, a genuine mistake or an attempt to conceal certain problems, in 2015, the Lithuanian Prime Minister, Algirdas Butkevičius, declared that Lithuania will not buy electricity from Belarus.

Sadly, Lithuania’s hurt pride was soon overshadowed by other concerns related to the safety of the plant. In September 2017, Rosatom allegedly silenced a leak of radioactive isotopes. Such an attitude is strongly reminiscent of the Soviet approach to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster where the authorities silenced the tragedy. International experts also point out that Belarus has no solid plan for nuclear waste processing – a very important issue in its own right. Yet, perhaps the peak of controversy came back in 2016 when a 330-ton nuclear plant shell was dropped during the construction process. Many believe this accident embodies the criminal negligence Rosatom has for the safety of the Ostrovets Nuclear Station.

Children

Photo: Children suffering from radioactive poisoning in the aftermath of Chernobyl – an image many Belarusians to this day associate with nuclear energy (Credit: BelarusGuide.org)

At the same time, Belarus claims that the project is absolutely safe. Naturally, Belarus will be directly affected by any shortcomings of Rosatom and hence, quite logically, strives to regulate the construction process. As a matter of fact, Alexander Lukashenko takes the process very seriously.

To quote the previously stated example, when the shell was dropped during the construction, Lukashenko made sure the entire construction was replaced, despite Rosatom’s claims that it was not damaged. Minsk also has the backing of an international commission on nuclear energy, ENSREG, which, after a thorough examination of the station in June of this year, concluded that the Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant was completely safe. Despite the occasional construction casualties and isotope leaks, Lukashenko’s efforts to create a modern and sophisticated nuclear power plant seem to be paying off.

A testament to that is the dramatic change in the public’s perception of the project in Belarus. Elena Martishchenkova, a sociologist from Minsk, claims that about half of all Belarussians believe the project is not only safe but also economically beneficial. The number goes up to about 65% in the Ostrovets region – a high-tech megapolis in the making.

Ostrovets

Photo: Ostrovets is a small city in rural Belarus. Perhaps not quite a technological masterpiece yet (Credit: AtomInfo.ru)

So, with Lithuania and Belarus presenting contrasting narratives, we simply cannot come to a definitive conclusion on whether Ostrovets will result in another nuclear disaster. Unfortunately, there is nothing left for us to do but to retreat to an old cliche – only time will tell. Meanwhile, Lithuania, unable to stop the construction of the plant, is coming up with detailed evacuation plans.

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