By the time the children arrived at the emergency registration center in Kalvarija, Lithuania, they had already been decontaminated by teams in hazmat suits. Irena Dziuzaite was there at the gym, waiting with her Red Cross team.

On a dreary October morning in 2019, Dziuzaite, along with around 500 Lithuanian government employees and volunteers, was taking part in a simulation of the country’s response to a possible nuclear disaster in neighboring Belarus. Necessary preparations, given that the Russian state atomic agency Rosatom is building a twin reactor plant over the border, just 30 miles from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

During the drills, the national broadcaster LRT aired radio and television warnings. At the same time, more than 800 sirens — some of which were installed during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania — wailed across the country. 

Helicopters from the nation’s Radiation Protection Agency buzzed the border with Belarus. The nuclear facility under construction in the Belarusian town of Astravets was visible on the horizon.

The controversy surrounding Unit 1 of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant (BelNPP) has steadily heightened ever since its concrete stacks began to rise above the tree line in 2012. Now, the first of the twin reactors are scheduled to come online in a matter of months.

Officials in Vilnius say that Belarus has tried to cover up several major accidents on the construction site and that the plant is a catastrophe waiting to happen. 

The $10 billion project is also a test case for Russia, which says that it is building dozens more plants in 12 countries, including Egypt, Bangladesh, Finland, Hungary and China. The Kremlin’s aim is for the nation to become the leading global provider of nuclear energy. However, Russia’s track record of accident cover-ups, dating all the way back to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, has Lithuania on edge.

“We are all sober people here. We have to accept there is a risk,” Dziuzaite said, reflecting on the evacuation drills. “We have to be prepared.”

Environmental impact

At the core of Lithuania’s concerns over BelNPP is the suspicion that its construction is part of a strategy to further Kremlin expansionism within the region. Speaking in April 2013, Belarus’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said the export potential of the plant will become “a bone in the throat of the European Union and the Baltic States.” 

“They will have to buy ours and Russian electricity,” he added.

But, even before ground was broken in 2012, anti-nuclear activists and officials in Lithuania warned that the nation’s government and Rosatom had fudged environmental impact assessments mandated by the United Nations.

Meanwhile, Lithuania’s foreign ministry says that BelNPP stands on ground prone to earthquakes, which Belarusian scientists had ruled out as a possible site for a nuclear facility in 1992.

In 2016, the Belarusian opposition politician Nikolai Ulasevich told the press that a major incident had occurred on the BelNPP construction site, claiming that a 330-tonne casing for one of the reactors had been dropped from a height of several meters.

It took two weeks, punctuated by desperate media speculation, for the national energy ministry to finally confirm, on July 27, that an “emergency situation” had occurred, without giving details. Rosatom, the site’s primary contractor, said that the casing had not been damaged. 

On August 1, the Belarusian deputy energy minister, Mikhail Mikhadyuk, announced that the casing’s installation had been suspended, pending tests. Rosatom again denied that the reactor shell had been damaged, but did say that it would be willing to replace it.

These events were not without precedent. Since 2012, when Lukashenko presided over a ceremony to mark the start of BelNPP’s construction, his administration and Rosatom have been slow to admit dozens more accidents. These include a fire in June 2019 and at least three deaths over the past eight years.

BelNPP’s first reactor was initially set to launch in autumn 2018. After a series of delays, the Belarusian energy minister announced in April that the plant will now become operational this autumn. The ministry has provided no reason for these continued postponements.

Officials in Vilnius say that, in an effort to speed up the construction, Rosatom is pressuring Belarusian authorities to allow deliveries of nuclear fuel, despite leaving safety flaws unaddressed. In a report earlier this year, Lithuania’s intelligence services said the fire in June 2019 was caused by negligence and hushed up by the Belarusian authorities.

“This Soviet-like obsession with concealing information about incidents is probably the biggest stain on the reputation on the nuclear power plant,’ said Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst. “If only they didn’t hide incidents persistently, the Belarusian position would be pretty strong on BelNPP.”

A spokesperson for the Belarus Embassy in Vilnius acknowledged mistakes in the government’s response to the accidents, putting the blame on the sluggish, Soviet-style bureaucracy that still prevails in the nation’s administrative structures.

In an emailed statement for this article, Rosatom said it considers safety its “first and utmost priority.” The agency said it was working with a variety of international watchdogs to “ensure that the project in Belarus meets the highest international safety standards.”

However, Rosatom’s recent history is littered with cover-ups.

In late 2017, scientists detected a radiation cloud drifting across Europe. In August 2019, an international study was published that stated an accident at a Rosatom facility in Mayak, near the Russian border with Kazakhstan, was likely to blame. Rosatom denied any responsibility.

According to Andrey Ozharovsky — a Russian nuclear physicist and anti-Astravets campaigner — Rosatom has consistently “followed the worst Soviet practice of disinformation, lack of transparency and accountability.”

Rosatom is now building nuclear facilities in countries including Egypt, Turkey and Belarus; all nations that have been criticized by human rights organizations for repressive policies regarding activists and independent journalists.

According to Vladimir Slivyak, head of a Russian NGO Ecodefense, the only times Rosatom has released information about incidents at its plants or construction sites have been after they were revealed by independent reporting.

Ecodefense has called into question both Rosatom’s safety record and the economic prospects of its global expansion. The NGO’s 2019 report highlighted $90 million funneled from Russia’s state wealth fund into loans for Rosatom’s clients.

It also found that, despite Rosatom’s claims that it is building 36 reactors in 12 countries, only seven were under active construction at the beginning of 2019 — one in Turkey, two each in Bangladesh and India, and the twin reactors in Belarus.

The rest were beset with problems, including failures to secure permits owing to safety concerns, as happened in 2018 in Finland, which has a stringent nuclear safety regulator, STUK. The Hanhikivi plant, on Finland’s northwestern coast, is still yet to receive safety clearance from STUK, despite its construction having been greenlit by the Finnish government in April 2010. 

Finland’s governing coalition collapsed in June 2014, at the height of the Ukrainian conflict, after the Green League party pulled out over the nuclear project, saying that a deal with Rosatom would increase Kremlin influence within the country. At present, around two-thirds of Finland’s energy imports come from Russia.

According to Slivyak, the limited economic viability of some of these projects — which involve vast state subsidies for loans that may not be repaid — points to their benefits to Russia being more political than economic.

Once you sell a nuclear reactor to another country, you make it dependent on your services and expertise for the next century,” he said.

“You will be at least part of the management team that will operate the plant, you’ll be the supplier of nuclear fuel. You will then be capable of influencing local policies, local politics. It’s one of the most efficient instruments to make a country dependent on you.”

A spokesperson for Rosatom dismissed allegations that the company’s plant in Belarus — or any projects— is being leveraged to further the Kremlin’s political goals. In an email comment for this article, the agency said that a “majority of energy experts share the view that no new nuclear build project, based on a Russian design or otherwise, could be used for geopolitical purposes.” 

Memories of Chernobyl

For many in Belarus, safety fears overshadow all other concerns. 

We met Nikolai Ulasevich in Astravets in the summer of 2016, one month after he revealed the reactor casing accident. As we barreled past the construction site in his car, a lone tractor plowed a field in front of the plant’s concrete stacks. 

“They’re building a crematorium,” he said, picking up speed.

Ulasevich’s outrage is echoed through liberal circles in Belarusian society. The Nobel-prize-winning author Svetlana Alexeivch, whose book “Chernobyl Prayer” covers the horrors of the 1986 disaster, was equally blunt when she referred to BelNPP as “a crime.” 

In February this year, during a gathering of anti-Astravets activists in Vilnius, she said that the BelNPP project has “completely ignored” the lessons of Chernobyl and asserted that the Kremlin is using the plant to keep Belarus “on a short leash.”

Nearly 40% of Belarusian respondents to a 2017 poll said they opposed the facility for reasons of public safety. “This is a direct consequence of the collective memory of Chernobyl,” said Shraibman, the Belarusian political analyst.

In addition to staging evacuation and emergency response drills, the Lithuanian interior ministry is preparing for a similar calamity on its borders. In August 2019, it purchased nearly $1 million worth of iodine tablets — a first response to radiation poisoning — to distribute among the population in the event of a nuclear accident.

Lithuania’s Radiation Protection Agency has also said that more than a dozen radiation monitoring stations have been constructed along the country’s border with Belarus. 

“My attitude hasn’t changed,” said Ulasevich over Facebook earlier this month. “Given the quality of the construction, based on information from those working on-site, we simply cannot expect that the plant is reliable and will work without failures. I hope common sense will prevail and the plant will not be launched.”

Photos by Sergei Gapon