By Nina Bachkatov
Technically speaking, the preliminary report of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) about the Ostrovets Belarusian Nuclear Power Station reflects E.U. worries about its security. But political considerations are part of the equation, bearing in mind Belarus’ internal situation, the tortuous relations between the European Union and its Eastern Partnership’s allies, the unfinished creation of a single Baltic grid. And, the relations of the different actors with Russia.
According to the European Commission website, the report has been approved on 3 March, by consensus, following ENSREG’s experts’ second visit, who benefited from an excellent cooperation with the Belarusian side. This “peer review” has checked the full implementation of 7 stress tests, mostly concerning security and public health. A full-fledged assessment is expected later in 2021. Parallelly, the lobbying machine never stopped making the utmost of a few days’ interruption when the Unit n°1 entered into operation, on 13 January. Officially the staff wanted to check a valve of the cooling system. On 11 February, in a hurry, MEPs adopted a resolution expressing concern that the construction and future operations of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant were “a source of possible threat to the European Union and its Member States with regard to safety, health and the protection of the environment”.
Ostrovets, in the region of Grodno, is located 25 kilometers from the E.U. border; and this border runs between Belarus and Lithuania, a country that has been fighting Ostrovets from the beginning, sparring no efforts to rally countries and groups around claims the EU energy security was threatened, and even the security of NATO members. Chernobyl is still a trauma on the European continent, including in Russia. It has been an argument during the campaign for the 1989 Soviet parliamentary elections marked by the success of nationalist parties. But the positions were varying. The Baltic states included the energy question into their drive to independence. Belarus parliament declared a republic nuclear free. In Ukraine and Estonia, governments were debating the ‘national value’ of possessing their own nuclear capacities to produce their own electricity – but not for exports. After the collapse of the USSR, ‘energy independence’ will haunt republics as it left them interdependent, mostly from Russia. In many aspects, the saga around the construction of the Belarus’ nuclear power plant can be seen as a distant collateral of Chernobyl. The accident had put in question the reliability of all Soviet, then Russian, technology – a prejudice now evidenced in the suspicion towards the Sputnik Covid vaccine.
Ostrovets’ later developments has also to been seen in the framework of the ‘revolution’ that followed the 2020 presidential election. If, as the West still hopes, Belarus will soon change regime and turn West, the country might be an important participant of electricity market of Europe. In this view, better to adopt a wait and see position while imposing E.U. technical norms. As cooler heads might have foreseen, Lukashenko has been forced to make a turn to Moscow as the only help to meet social and economic needs. He just signed new energy contracts with president Putin. It should be easy to forget that, in 2007, when president Lukashenko unveiled the nuclear project, it was a gesture of defiance towards Moscow. Both countries were entangled in one of their recurrent quarrels about energy prices and custom taxes. Lukashenko wanted to produce its own electricity to cut dependency on Russian oil and gas (at the time, more than 90% each), but also to secure benefits by selling electricity’s surplus to its neighbours, mostly Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. But he found no partners, and when, in 2012, a contract was finally signed, it was with Atomstroyexport, the Russian nuclear power equipment and service exporter, a fully owned subsidiary of Rosatom – which was also financing the construction.
The Russian involvement provided arguments to opposition in Belarus, but also in the Baltic states that depend of imports to fill their energy needs. Projects included a cut of all links to non E.U.-electricity grids, mostly with Russian grid, and building common infrastructures between the 3 Baltic states. But again investors were shy. Since 2009, Lithuania has been the spearhead of the fight against Ostrovets. The country is very depended from electricity import since the closure of its nuclear power station, Ignalina, as a condition for joining E.U. It has bargained hard for compensations and decommissioning. But the later one will last up to 2029 at a cost of a billion euros, making the Commission reluctant to finance more, especially if an agreement can be found around Ostrovets.
Vilnius has been modestly successful, but his hard-line policy exposed the different approaches among the Baltic trio. Since 3 November, the day when Ostrovets unit n°1 started its operations, the exchanges of electricity between Minsk and EU were cut. But the power station is there, in activity and even exporting to Lithuania… through the Russian grid, via Latvia and Estonia.