European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group ENSREG has just visited Belarus in order to complete a report that summarises the first stage of peer review of Belarus’s National Action Plan.

The controversial Ostrovets nuclear plant in Belarus, built by Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, officially began operating last November despite strong opposition from neighboring Lithuania.

Rosatom Eastern Europe Director Vladimir Gorn hailed the work of the EU nuclear regulators’ coordination body. He told New Europe on February 16 the peer review of Belarus’s National Action Plan is progressing in a positive way. “We are continuing to work closely with the country’s national nuclear energy regulator and international watchdogs to ensure that all issues are addressed to the highest international safety standards,” he said.

The Rosatom official noted that the plant’s commissioning continues as scheduled. “Subject to the completion of the final licensing process and receiving all regulatory permits unit 1 will enter commercial operation this coming spring and unit 2 will be launched next year,” Gorn said. “By replacing power generation by highly polluting fossil fuels, the plant will prevent millions of tonnes of carbon emissions and save hundreds of lives each year,” he added.

During a plenary debate at the European Parliament on February 11, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson informed the plenary about the actions the Commission has been taking to ensure the safety of the Ostrovets plant.

“Today’s debate is very timely. Just yesterday, a team of nuclear safety experts from the Commission and the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group, ENSREG, has concluded a visit on the site of the power plant. This visit is a key part of the ongoing peer review process,” Simson said.

“The Commission, together with ENSREG, has worked swiftly to set up the peer review team and negotiate a schedule for conducting the review before the planned commercial start of the nuclear power plant, including a plant visit,” she added.

The first phase of the peer review, initially foreseen for December 2020, has begun at the end of January. After the technical desk review carried out remotely, on February 9 and February 10, a team of 7 ENSREG and Commission experts carried out the first phase mission to verify physically the implementation of measures at the Ostrovets plant.

The team consists of senior experts from different Member States, Ukraine and the Commission. The team has a strong expertise in the key areas for peer review and is fully independent in making its conclusions on the adequate implementation of safety recommendations by the Ostrovets NPP operator and Belarusian authorities.

The experts will now complete the preliminary report the Commissioner said, adding that this report will be then submitted to the plenary meeting of ENSREG at the beginning of March for endorsement, Simson said. Once approved, the report will be published. This process is set to guarantee a credible, independent and robust technical review of the situation.

“Therefore, at this point in time, pending the completion of ENSREG’s review procedures, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the ongoing independent work by the senior nuclear safety experts, and prejudge the findings in the report. I believe that all sides should refrain from commenting on the results of the mission at this stage. As I said, ENSREG will publish its preliminary report for full transparency,” Simson said.

“Let me stress one thing. This preliminary report will be very important, but in any case, it will not be for us the end of our involvement and our commitment to the full safety of the plant,” she said, adding that ENSREG and the Commission will continue to follow closely the implementation of the remaining recommendations and once pandemic conditions allow, the full peer review team will need to visit Belarus to assess the remaining recommendations. At that time, they will prepare a final report for endorsement by ENSREG and subsequent publication.

At the debate on February 11, MEPs claimed that there are serious concerns over the safety of the Ostrovets NPP and demanded that its commercial launch be suspended.

In a resolution adopted with 642 votes to 29, with 21 abstentions, MEPs criticised “the hasty commissioning of the Ostrovets nuclear plant and the continued lack of transparency and official communication regarding the frequent emergency shutdowns of the reactor and equipment failure,” the European Parliament said in a press release.

“Despite outstanding safety concerns, the plant started to generate electricity on 3 November 2020 without fully implementing recommendations made in the 2018 EU peer review and by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),” MEPs argued, expressing their discontent with the rush to start commercial operation of the plant in March 2021.

The MEPS called on the Commission to work closely with the Belarusian authorities to delay launching the plant until all EU stress test recommendations are fully implemented and all the necessary safety improvements are in place, the EU Parliament said.

MEPs also urged Belarus to fully comply with international nuclear and environmental safety standards, and to cooperate with international authorities in a transparent manner.

Rosatom’s Ostrovets nuclear power plant is located 50 kilometers from Lithuanian capital Vilnius and in close proximity to other EU member states Poland, Latvia and Estonia.

Electricity stopped being traded between Belarus and the EU on November 3 when the Ostrovets plant was connected to the electricity grid. This followed the August 2020 joint decision of the Baltic States to cease commercial exchanges of electricity with Belarus once the Ostrovets plant started operating. However, MEPs noted that electricity from Belarus can still enter the EU market via the Russian grid, the EU Parliament said.

Despite MEPs’ claims that the Belarus plant is unsafe, ENSREG’s Stress Tests Peer Review report has given the tests an “overall positive” mark but provided Belarus’ nuclear regulator Gosatomnadzor with recommendations to be included in the National Action Plan (NIA).

Moreover, a March 2020 integrated nuclear infrastructure review (INIR) by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the INIR mission concluded that Belarus is close to completing the required nuclear power infrastructure for starting the operation of its first NPP. “It has competent organizations and is finalising its activities to prepare for start up of the first unit. In order to assist the Belarus in completing and maintaining its infrastructure development, the INIR team made 7 Recommendations and 6 Suggestions. The INIR team also identified 5 Good Practices that may benefit other countries implementing a nuclear power programme,” the report read.

Russia’s Rosatom has said is working closely with the IAEA, the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), the national regulator and international nuclear expert groups to ensure that there are no doubts that all safety issues are properly addressed.

Meanwhile, the Rosatom official hit back at critics who have attacked the commissioning of the Belarus plant as unsafe. “It is regrettable to see that some politicians in Europe have become hostages of antinuclear bigotry and have adopted stereotypes in their discourse. It speaks volumes that a European Parliament resolution, which yet again baselessly branded the plant as ‘unsafe’, was passed before the relevant EU nuclear safety body had completed its on site evaluation or voiced any conclusions,” Gorn told New Europe and argued, “The verdict appears to have been read and sealed even before the jury was given a chance to convene and deliberate on the matter at hand”.

 

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