On May 25, the Astravets Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), in Belarus, finished receiving nuclear fuel for the initial load of its first reactor (Belta, May 25). These nuclear rods, delivered in batches since May 6, are now ready to be loaded into the reactor, after careful inspection. If all continues to proceed according to plan, the first reactor will be started up in July, with initial output expected in September/October, and the second reactor will start operating in 2021.
For roughly a decade, the Astravets NPP has been a tangible focus of the bitter breakdown in relations between Belarus and Lithuania (see Jamestown.org, May 29). Lithuania argues the Belarusian plant is a threat to its national security, public health, and environment, primarily due to it being constructed just 28 miles from its capital of Vilnius. Lithuania also maintains that the Astravets NPP violates various international safety standards and lacks transparency. Belarus sees the NPP as a vital means for loosening its energy dependence on Russian natural gas. Moreover, Minsk has argued it has more interest than most in ensuring the nuclear plant is safe considering the tragic legacy of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown on Belarus (Gov.by, May 11). This dispute has also impacted Belarus’s wider relations with the European Union, as Vilnius has vetoed the signing of partnership priorities between Minsk and the EU, citing safety concerns over the nuclear power facility.
The Astravets NPP will be a 2,400-megawatt-electric (MWe) plant, with two VVER-1200 reactors. It is being built by Atomstroyexport, an affiliate of Russia’s state-owned Rosatom. The plant is being financed by Russia with a state loan of up to $10 billion for 25 years, and Moscow is footing 90 percent of the contract. This NPP is not the first of its kind proposed in Belarus: during the 1980s, there were plans to build a nuclear power plant in Rudensk, 50 kilometers south of Minsk, but following the Chernobyl disaster, the project was abandoned.
The Belarusian Security Council made the decision to construct a nuclear power plant in January 2008, following a bilateral energy dispute with Russia in 2007, just one of a number of oil and gas disagreements between Moscow and Minsk since then (see Jamestown.org, January 31, 2020). The plant is expected to reduce gas imports from Russia by 5 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year (from around 20 bcm today). Belarus has also proposed constructing an additional 1,000 MW coal-fired plant, four hydropower stations with 120 MW capacities, and wind projects that can produce 300 MW, which could reduce dependence on Russian gas even further. However, given that, in 2011, Rosatom, a Russian state-owned nuclear energy company, won the contract to build Astravets, coupled with the Russian state loan to fund the construction, this appears to be dependence in another guise. Notably, Belarus will strongly depend on the contractor for fuel and eventual decommissioning of the plant (World-nuclear.org, May 2020).
At the same time, the NPP will generate a huge power surplus, far oversupplying domestic consumption; but Astravets has yet to secure sufficient export markets. The NPP could eventually power around 2.5 million Belarusian households. In April 2020, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka began to discuss new measures to stimulate domestic residential electricity consumption (Gov.by, April 10). Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine have ruled out importing electricity from the NPP (lrt, May 8), while Latvia and Estonia are reportedly still considering. Moreover, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are currently working to desynchronize their electricity grid from Belarus and Russia and synchronize with the continental European grid, which will eventually present a small but additional technical/investment hurdle for Minsk if it wishes to sell power to its Baltic neighbors. According to the Lithuanian 2019 National Threat Assessment, the Astravets NPP project enhances Russia’s position in the region, potentially undermining Baltic resynchronization (Vsd.lt, February 2019).
Lithuania has long tried to prevent Astravet’s construction by seeking to unite the EU in opposition, approaching German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker, the former president of the European Commission, for support. Lithuania also unsuccessfully asked the United States to back its position on the NPP (Baltic Times, April 29, 2020), and even suggested the nuclear plant should be converted to natural gas (BNN, March 5, 2019).
However, in an interview on May 14, 2020, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda conceded that the NPP is effectively an irreversible reality and that Lithuania should instead focus on pressing Minsk to implement proper safety requirements (lrt.lt, May 14). Earlier this year, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius also noted that dialogue with Minsk had been more constructive, after Belarus agreed to allow European Commission experts to tour the plant (Baltic Times, February 5). This was a marked change of tone from previous Lithuanian attempts to prevent the NPP from going ahead and could signal small steps toward a constructive middle ground, thus opening the door for closer EU-Belarusian relations.
Lithuania has genuine concerns about transparency regarding accidents and safety at the plant. The reactor vessel has already been involved in two known health and safety events. In July 2016, it was dropped from a crane during installation, and the Belarusian authorities did not admit the incident for weeks. The replacement reactor vessel then collided with a railway pylon while being transported (Independent, January 19, 2020). Belarus has attempted to quell some of these concerns by allowing in international organizations to assess the plant, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group. On May 26, there were further concerns when Rosatom announced that 100 workers from the plant are currently infected with the novel coronavirus (Rosatom.ru, May 26).
Many issues are left to address before Lithuania accepts the Astravets NPP, and it will likely never fully approve of the plant due to its location. Lithuanians seem wary of nuclear power in general, defeating a government proposal to open an NPP in Visaginas, Lithuania, by 65 percent in a 2012 referendum. In October 2019, the Lithuanian authorities ran a major emergency preparedness operation imitating a disaster response to a nuclear meltdown. The government also purchased four million iodine pills to be distributed to its citizens. These moves to warn a population about the dangers of Astravets will be difficult to backpedal from. However, reluctant acceptance that the NPP is now nearly complete, and the encouraging signs of dialogue between Minsk and Vilnius, could signal a warming of relations, in turn creating fresh possibilities for boosting Belarus’s relations with the EU.