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Despite Wrangling, Wraps Set to Come Off World’s Newest Nuclear Plant

Mention the word nuclear to some and the chances are they may initially recoil in horror.

But the fact is that nuclear power capacity worldwide is increasing steadily, with about 55 reactors currently under construction.

Of course, the world has now encountered a new global challenge that has affected millions of people – the coronavirus pandemic.

The nuclear industry has already contributed to the global response to the crisis by sterilizing medical tools and protective equipment using radiation technologies and by ensuring a sustainable supply of electricity generated by nuclear power plants.

Agneta Rising, director general of World Nuclear Association, said: “The global nuclear industry is ready to do its part to make sure we come out of this pandemic stronger, cleaner and more resilient than ever before. Nuclear energy can play a key role in the post-COVID recovery by boosting economic growth, creating jobs, and supporting the development of a cost-effective, low-carbon, resilient electricity infrastructure. There is a window of opportunity for governments to support the many new nuclear build projects already planned.”

Today, there are about 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries and one of the newest, in Belarus, is set to open this month.

Under its 2011-2020 energy strategy, Belarus seeks to reduce its reliance on Russia as a major energy supplier, and the 2,400-megawatt nuclear power station at Astravets is pivotal to this goal.

The country imports a significant majority of its gas from Russia – much of it for electricity – but, if fully implemented, the strategy would bring the share of power generated using Russian gas down to 55%. Belarus officials estimate that the nuclear power plant would reduce the country’s carbon footprint by 7-10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per annum, about 15% of its total.

Neighbouring Lithuania has fought a long-running, if apparently hopeless, battle against the plant, not least as its capital, Vilnius, lies around 31 miles from the site which, it says, would be in real danger in the event of a Fukushima-style catastrophe.

Lithuania also said that the site is located in an area known for earthquakes and that it is bad for regional energy security.

Lithuania, therefore, suggested that Belarus invite the International Atomic Energy Agency, the respected international organization that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, to carry out a site visit to validate its concerns.

Belarus did so, and in January 2017 the IAEA team reported: “Appropriate steps have been taken to establish the design parameters of the nuclear power plant to protect it against the worst credible external event.” It said that the plant’s design parameters adequately accounted for external hazards, such as earthquakes, floods, and extreme weather, and for human error.

A delegation from Lithuania even visited the plant on July 9, 2018, as part of a delegation of EU and non-EU experts, which concluded the plant has “generally” met the requirements of EU “stress tests.”

Despite this, Lithuania’s energy minister threatened to boycott electricity imports from Belarus, suggesting that this would undermine the economic foundation of the Belarus project. He proposed a bill which would prohibit access to Lithuania’s grid and power market by foreign countries that “operate or build” unsafe reactors.

Belarus, in its defence, insists it has consistently demonstrated a long-standing commitment to nuclear safety. It joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) back in 1995, and in 2005 signed the Additional Protocol to its safeguard’s agreement with the IAEA.

Some suggest that Lithuania’s big fear is, rather than safety and environmental concerns, is a more prosaic preoccupation with a lost market share.

Lithuania, it should be recalled, used to have its own nuclear power plant, at Ignalina, but that was shut down in 2009. Unlike Astravets, it used the old – and questionable – Soviet RBMK design and this had to be shut down as a condition of joining the EU in 2009.

What Lithuania may be less ready to accept is that the Belarussian nuke plant means that Astravets is a potentially cheaper, and definitely cleaner, readily available source of power generation for neighbouring nations.

In theory, that takes Lithuania out of the market.

As recently as August 2019, the IAEA was back at it with a safety review team paying a visit to Astravets. They inspected what was still a construction site over a two-week period and – again – gave it thumbs up.

Last October, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda tried to get the EU to declare the power plant a problem for Belarus sovereignty.

The EU has, largely, stayed out of the row but a well-placed source at the European Commission in Brussels told me, “The plain fact is that one of the key aims here is for Belarus to wean itself off its current dependency on energy from Russia. That curries favour with an awful lot of people in Europe who still fear the ability of Moscow to turn off power supplies to Europe as Russia has done in the past.”

Belarus, he pointed out, currently relies on Russian gas to generate almost 95 percent of the country’s power.

“Belarus, despite opposition from some quarters, seems to have clearly demonstrated that, with this new plant, it is abiding by international safety standards. It is unlikely there will be any political will to ban Belarus from operating a nuclear reactor or selling its electricity to its neighbours in the EU,” he said.

Andrew Wrobel, of the UK-based think tank, Emerging Europe, points out that Belarus was the unfortunate recipient of almost 70 percent of the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Therefore, the country’s decision to move forward with the construction of a nuclear power plant “would not have been taken lightly.”

Rumen Dobrinsky of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, states, “Lithuania is infuriated by what it sees as historic injustice: they will be forced to import electricity generated by nuclear power while they could have been exporting such. Lithuania also tacitly blames the European Commission for double standards. First, in not taking a strong position against the construction of the plant at its inception, and later, in not backing it adequately in the dispute with Belarus.”

The saga has also put the spotlight back on the role nuclear power will play in a transition to clean energy, one of the objectives of the EU’s much-vaunted European Green Deal and a flagship policy of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The global nuclear industry’s goal is for nuclear energy to supply 25 percent of the world’s electricity before 2050, as part of a clean energy mix.

This month’s opening of the world’s newest nuke plant in Belarus is a small but important contribution to reaching that goal.