Lithuania's Concerns over Russian Nuclear Projects
Arvamus 24 Mar 2011  EWR
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Lithuania has condemned Belarus and Russia for planning to build a nuclear power plant near the Lithuania-Belarus border and is considering asking the European Union to restrict electricity trading by third parties that do not comply with nuclear safety requirements. It is has also spoken out against the Kaliningrad Nuclear Power Plant, located in the eponymous Russian exclave. Beyond obvious concerns over nuclear safety in light of the recent Japanese nuclear crisis, there is more to Lithuania’s opposition than obvious at first glance, particularly given tensions among Lithuania, Belarus, and Russia.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said March 22 that Lithuania is considering asking the European Union to impose restrictions on electricity trading by third parties that generate electric power without complying with nuclear safety requirements. Kubilius directly referenced Russia’s constructing a nuclear power plant in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, as well as a planned Russian-Belarusian project to construct a plant in Belarus. Lithuania has vociferously spoken out against the latter project since a deal was signed March 16 between Russia and Belarus — a deal that would allow Moscow to provide roughly $9 billion in financing to construct the nuclear plant.

While Lithuania’s concerns over the environmental impact of these nuclear projects may be genuine — and with an obvious connection to rising fears over nuclear plant safety since the Japanese nuclear crisis — there are also less obvious factors contributing to Lithuania’s opposition, particularly given recent political tensions among Lithuania, Belarus and Russia.

The Russian-Belarusian nuclear power plant project — estimated to have a capacity of 2.4 gigawatts (GW) and set to be commissioned in 2018 — has been a controversial topic, given that the project was signed between Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the midst of the Japanese nuclear disaster. The Japanese situation has generated anxiety in Europe over existing and future nuclear plants, and the new nuclear project in Belarus is no exception. This project is particularly concerning to Lithuania because the proposed site for the nuclear plant is Astraviec, a Belarusian town 23 kilometers (14 miles) from the Lithuanian border and just 50 kilometers from the capital of Vilnius.

As such, Vilnius has spoken out against construction of the plant. It has also become increasingly vocal in its opposition of Russia’s Kaliningrad Nuclear Power Plant, which has a capacity of 2.34 GW and has been under construction since February 2010. Lithuanian lawmaker Vytautas Landsbergis has said that constructing a nuclear facility in Belarus — in addition to the Kaliningrad plant — could threaten the safety of Lithuania’s two largest rivers, the Neris and Nemunas, and could even endanger Lithuania’s existence in the event of a Chernobyl-style nuclear accident. While Belarus has presented Lithuania with an environmental impact assessment on the future plant, the Lithuanian government has rejected the assessment, saying that Lithuania’s “questions have not been answered properly.” Kubilius specifically cited the use of Russian-made nuclear reactors for the plants as a point of concern, and Vilnius has advocated that construction should not begin until the European Union fully assesses the project.

Lithuania’s concerns are understandable given possible environmental impacts and current public opinion over the danger of nuclear plants, but safety is not the only driving force behind Lithuania’s unease. Lithuania is currently moving forward with plans to build its own nuclear facility to replace the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, which was shut down in 2010. Lithuania is currently trying to attract EU funding to build the facility as a regional project meant to diversify the Baltic states away from Russian energy. (It is no coincidence that Russia has made plans to build two new nuclear plants in the region.)

Belarus is currently a marginal importer of electricity, and a new nuclear plant, coupled with an additional plant in nearby Kaliningrad, would generate a significant amount of electricity that could be exported by Belarus and Russia to Lithuania and elsewhere in the region. The electricity from these plants would therefore render unnecessary a Baltic (or Polish) nuclear plant, at least from an energy generation standpoint, something about which Moscow is undoubtedly well aware. This will give Russia yet another lever over the Baltic states, which are completely reliant on Russian natural gas, and could further stymie their energy diversification plans.

In addition to its competing interests with Russia over energy production in this contested region, Lithuania’s objections to the nuclear projects also reflect the political tension among Vilnius, Minsk and Moscow. Lithuania has been one of the leading EU countries incondemning Lukashenko’s regime since controversial elections in January were met with a crackdown on opposition leaders and protesters. Lithuania has also had tense relations with Russia and has been the most resistant of the three Baltic states to Russian overtures into the region. Lithuania has not signed economic deals with Russia as Latvia has, and Vilnius has repeatedly called out Russian energy behemoth Gazprom over unbundling issues, even going so far as threatening to take the state-owned energy firm to court.

With tensions on the rise with Belarus and Russia, one of Lithuania’s biggest fears is close Russia-Belarus cooperation, as was demonstrated by the Zapad military exercises in which the two countries simulated an invasion of Poland and the Baltic states. With Belarus being increasingly isolated by the West, Minsk has been left with no option but to build and improve ties with Moscow. The signing of the nuclear deal is only the most recent example of these reinvigorated ties, one that Moscow knew would be controversial to the Europeans in general and Lithuania in particular.

While Lithuania’s concerns over the plants in Kaliningrad and Belarus involve more than safety and environmental issues, the Japanese crisis does give Lithuania an advantageous opportunity to speak out against Belarus and Russia when the European Union, and major European players such as Germany, may be more willing to listen. Lithuania’s actions may not be enough to dissuade Russia and Belarus from following through with their plans, but they could have implications for both the future of nuclear plants in the region and for relations between countries on the strategic North European Plain.

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