Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
At only 45 kilometers away from Lithuanian capital Vilnius, the rising nuclear power plant in Astravets, Belarus, poses imminent menace that will loom over Lithuania for years to come.
However, Lithuania only lately has put heat on Belarus, urging both regional neighbours and international community to interfere. But the calls might be just too late and not without a political tinge.
The headache is about Russian reactors
«Now that the plant over the border is shaping up our frantic efforts to halt it are coming too late,» Vidmantas Jankauskas, a Lithuanian energy expert, is convinced.
Lithuania’s headache is the Russian reactors that will be installed at Astravets, although some modern nations like Hungary, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia admitted the type of reactors is used in some of their nuclear power plants.
Lithuania’s unease about the Russian reactors surged in mid-April after an incident at the construction site.
According to official Minsk, the structural frame of the would-be nuclear service collapsed then.
«Being eager to meet the deadline, the people in charge hurried the workers who poured too much concrete for its foundation. As a result, the structural frame broke down and its components collapsed. Over 20 workers were immediately called to the construction site,» a source knowledgeable of the incident told a Belarusian news website.
But Lithuania insists the incident must have been a lot more serious than that and urged international bodies, like TATENA to launch a probe into the incident.
Lithuanian foreign ministry has summoned Belarusian ambassador in Vilnius and handed him a diplomatic note on the incident.
The Astravets NPP first power-generating unit is scheduled for commissioning in 2018, the second one – in 2020.
Belarus has right to build nuclear power plant
«As much as we feel irritation to the Belarus project, we cannot however strip the neighbour of the right to build a nuclear power plant. Especially, that Belarus is 100 percent dependent on Russian gas. As a matter of fact, all Belarusian generation comes from gas,» Jankauskas emphasized to BNN, adding, «So Belarus, like us, is entitled to have a nuclear power plant.»
Now that the project is ongoing, Lithuania will not stop it, Jankauskas is convinced, but in addressing the safety concerns, Lithuania needs to get engaged all possible international bodies.
«First of all, TATENA (International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA – L.J.). Our striving should be have it inspecting the site now, later and regularly after the launch,» the expert says.
But Linas Balsys, a Lithuanian lawmaker, shakes off his head in doubt, saying that the international organization cannot be trusted.
«Let’s not forget that it lobbies for expansion of nuclear energy. And its record on nuclear plant safety is very poor. It is the IAEA that has said that the Chernobyl, Fukushima and many other serious incidents-plagued nuclear power plants are safe,» the MP underlined.
The fact that the plant does not contain a sarcophagus in case radioactive meltdown occurs he finds «unfathomable».
President does too little?
Balsys also claims the harsher and more intense rhetoric against the Belarus construction comes too late.
«The revved-up rhetoric undoubtedly has to do with the political campaign in Lithuania but, for some reason, the Lithuanian political establishment did nothing or very little six years ago when the Belarusians announced the intention,» Balsys underscored.
The only way to halt the ongoing construction is to engage all possible international bodies, first of all, the European Union, in the campaign against the nuclear project at the Lithuanian door, he believes.
«Our president Dalia Grybauskaitė does not exert all what she can in her capacity against the construction. The president should be knocking at all the doors at the European Parliament, but she is just not doing it,» Balsys said.
As the former advisor to President Grybauskaitė, he has become a fierce critic of her after clinching a seat in the Lithuanian Parliament in 2012.
Grybauskaitė did attend the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC late March and did chastise Belarus for the secrecy shrouding the Astravets project in her speech in DC. But for Balsys, it is not enough.
«The project is an issue of our existence,» he says.
He is surprised that many European legislators have not heard of the Belarusian construction and the danger it poses to Lithuania.
Reminded that the EU has not worked out until now a single police on the development of nuclear energy within the Union, Balsys asserted it did not matter: «What matters is that the EU’s policies on nuclear energy safety have long been known and enforced. No other body except the European Union can get Alexander Lukashenka (the Belarusian president-L.J.) to the negotiating table. But, as I said, I don’t see the Lithuanian president’s efforts in that regard,» the MP underlined.
He believes that entering into talks with Belarus over the Astravets construction now, with the EU economic sanctions against Belarus lifted, should be easy.
Lithuania wants to exclude Belarusian generation from sales
Lithuania has been for quite some time orchestrating efforts to make sure that the Baltic Sea states do not buy the generation from the Astravets NPP.
For now, only Latvia and Estonia have come in support of the Lithuanian endeavour. Meanwhile, the Nordic countries have not yet nodded to the initiative.
Cutting the Belarusian electricity off from the intertwined transmission grid might be impossible, some experts warn.
«Cutting Belarus’ generation from the intricately-knit transmission system is unfeasible. As the electricity in the transmission is mixed, you cannot discern which comes from Belarus and which from Russia. Therefore, you cannot expect our Baltic neighbours to sign such an agreement,» Jankauskas told BNN. «As Belarus (with the Astravets nuclear power plant-L.J.) is targeting the huge Russian power market, I really doubt whether it is very worried about the clamouring on the other side of the border.»
He also is sceptic about the EU’s involvement in the row between Lithuania and Belarus.
«The European Union will not interfere in the Belarus project for two reasons. Firstly, with the EU economic sanctions against Belarus recently lifted, the EU does not want anything what could sour the relations again. It sees Belarus key in the EU’s dealings with Russia. Secondly, the EU still does not have a single policy nuclear power,» the expert said.
It is a geopolitical project
Meanwhile, Romas Švedas, an independent Lithuanian energy expert and former Energy vice-minister, is convinced that the Belarus and the on –and-off nuclear power plant project in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad are of «geopolitical character»: «Both aims to encumber the life in Baltics, especially that we have become a whole lot more independent energy wise »
Unlike Jankauskas, he believes Lithuania can «successfully» block the Belarusian electricity in the transmission system when the Baltic countries complete their power grids’ synchronization with Europe.
Lithuania has initially planned to have it over by 2020, but with the project late due to the preparatory work, the deadline was recently moved to 2024 or even 2025.
«The latter dates seem to me a lot more reasonable,» says Jankauskas.
Lithuania needs two other cables to fully synchronize grid
For the synchronization, Lithuania needs to lay out the second power cables with Poland and Sweden. The functioning grid interconnector with Poland and Sweden (the Lithuanian-Polish cable, or LitPol, is of 500 MW and the electricity link with Sweden, or NordBalt, has the capacity of 700 MW-L.J.) are praised for the benefits of the electricity interconnectivity across the Baltic and Nordic regions. But three Baltic countries’ transmission systems still depend on Russia-controlled IPS/UPS high-voltage electricity circuit BRELL, which encompasses Belarus, Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. To get disconnected from it and connected with the European transmission system, Lithuania needs the second cables with Sweden and especially Poland.
Better late than never
That Lithuania can still put brakes on the Belarus nuclear project also believes Kęstutis Daukšys, a parliamentarian and the chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament’s Energy Committee.
«We ought to be exerting more strenuous efforts on all levels in order to stop it. The idea that the Russian reactors-powered plant is popping up just a mere 50 kilometres away from Vilnius should be making all mad here. But as it does not, it makes me think that many Lithuanian politicians are too complacent with the issue,» Daukšys told BNN.
As fellow parliamentarian Balsys, he also believes that Lithuania’s attempts to harness the ambiguous project in Belarus are tardy.
«But to paraphrase the Lithuanian adage, it is always better to do something later than never,» the MP underlined.
Energy minister stokes Visaginas NPP project hopes
Meanwhile, the seemingly forgotten Lithuania’s own nuclear energy project in Visaginas saw some light being shed on by Lithuanian Energy minister Rokas Masiulis in a question-answer session in the Lithuanian Parliament last week.
According to the minister, the fate of the project will not be known before 2017.
«As the project is being developed along with our neighbours Latvia and Estonia, we have agreed with their ministers that all three countries will thoroughly scrutinize the situation in the power market this year. The year marks essential changes in it, as we already have the links with Poland and Sweden in operation. We want to use the year to assess how the market is being formed and only thereafter we will be able to understand how the market mechanisms work, what kind of changes we can expect and so on. To sum up, with that considered, we will be able to see the nuclear project in a new light,» the minister told Lithuanian legislators.
Lithuania and Japan’s Hitachi Ltd have agreed to build a nuclear power plant in the Visaginas municipality in eastern Lithuania, but the plan suffered a major setback after Lithuanian voters thumbed it down in a non-binding referendum in 2012 and a new Social Democratic Government in power from the year exercised a tepid approach to it.
Economics plays against the Visaginas project
The minister acknowledged that economics is not in favour of the endeavour now.
«At the outset of the project (back in 2011), the electricity price we paid on the exchange was 60-65 euro per megawatt. As we’ve assessed that the cost of the generation at a new plant could be in a range of 50 euro, the current price we are paying for electricity, 30-35 euro per megawatt, is way lower than that projected,» Masiulis emphasized.
The fate of the Lithuanian project also depends on Nordic countries’ energy policies.
«We want to see what the Swedes will do with their nuclear energy. If they decide to shut down their old-generation power plants, then the price would go significantly up on the exchange and therefore reviving the Visaginas project would make sense then,» Masiulis said.
But Balsys, who is also a member of the Baltic Assembly, says that his Latvian and particularly Estonian counterparts have long scrapped the Visaginas project.
«They never saw it being viable and therefore have moved on seeking other solutions for the power market,» he told.