Earthquake zone on EU border to host Belarus nuclear plant
The drive toward the site of Belarus' future nuclear power plant goes through tall pine and white birch trees. The woods here, and in nearby Bialowieza, are among Europe's last primordial forests.
Located near the Lithuanian frontier, the nuclear facility will be just 50 kilometres away from Vilnius. The first of its two reactors is to go online in 2017. The second in 2018.
"The decision to build the station was entirely political ... It makes no sense to build it here. It's a fault line and the closest water source is 10 kilometres away," a Belarusian geologist - who does not want to reveal his name and who lost his job last year because a close relative spoke out against President Alexander Lukashenko - told this website.
Another, better-suited, location had been identified in the east of the country, he noted. But Russia pushed for the Lithuania-border site to "test" the Europeans.
The new plant will use water from the Vilia river - which is called Neris in Lithuania, and which hugs the edge of Vilnius' historic city centre.
Meanwhile, the Geological Survey of Lithuania says around 40 earthquakes of significant size have struck the region since the 17th century.
A tremor in 2004 registered 5.3 on the Richter scale in Vilnius. "The area selected for the new [Belarus facility] experienced the strongest earthquake ... in the history of Belarus," the Lithuanian foreign ministry told EUobsever by email. The 7.0 quake struck in 1909.
Lithuania spent two years trying to get Belarus to build the plant further away and to use a different water source - a line in Minsk's 3,500-plus-page-long environmental impact assessment reportedly says radioactive and chemical contamination of the Vilia/Neris will be "within allowable limits."
It failed, and construction began in 2011.
Lithuania has filed a complaint with the Swiss-based United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, while its foreign minister, Audronius Azubalis, has warned that the project is a threat to national security which will "cloud" bilateral relations.
His tough talk has not impacted Belarus-Lithuania trade, however.
Lithuania is a major transit point for Belarusian potash. "The nuclear power plant issue has no effect on trade relations. Around one third of Lithuania's port capacity is dedicated to Belarus potash alone and this is on the rise," Tomas Janeliunas, the editor-in-chief of the Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review journal, told this website in Vilnius.
If Lithuania plays hardball, Belarus can divert the potash to competing ports in Estonia or Latvia. "Ultimately, it would cost Lithuania more than it would Belarus," Janeliunas noted.
Meanwhile, Lithuania undermined its anti-nuclear campaign by opting to build a new reactor at its own (recently decommissioned) Ignalina nuclear plant.
It signed a premilinary contract with Hitachi on 30 March. The reactor is to go online in 2020 and pump wastewater into the Zeimena river, which joins the Vilia/Neris north of Vilnius. The Ignalina area saw a 2.1 quake in 2001.
"I cannot predict the psychology of Lukashenko, but we announced our intentions to build our own new nuclear power plant long before Belarus," Saulius Lapienus, the vice-president of Lithuania's Green party, which is trying to stop the Ignalina new-build, told this website.
Given the huge scale of the Belarusian project - both financially and politically - it is hard to say if anything Lithuania does would make much difference.
Officially promoted as reducing dependence on Russian gas imports, the facility will in fact increase Russia's footprint in the strategically important country. The €7.6 billion plant is being 90-percent-subsidised by Russia and built by Russian firm Atomstroyexport. Belarus is to borrow the remaining €760 million from Russian banks.
When this reporter visited the site in November 2011, the Belarusian geologist cited above turned off the main road, drove up a construction lane, stopped beside a post and stared out of the car window in silence.
The trees he used to walk through on his way to go fishing in the Vilia have been chopped down to make a large field of mud dotted by trucks, bulldozers and cranes.
There are no billboards to say what is going on. All you can see are a few steel girders and the skeleton of one future building.
There is more to see in Ostrovets, a nearby town of 8,000 people, where apartment complexes to house what will be a small army of nuclear plant workers are nearing completion. There is also a new asphalt road and recently-laid railway tracks for bringing supplies.
Ostrovets residents were reluctant to speak to this reporter.
In front of the city hall, an imposing bronze statue of Lenin - now a symbol of Lukashenko's power - overlooks the daily to-and-fro.
Belarus is a large country.
As the crow flies, it is more than 400km from Ostrovets to Narowla, another town of about 8,000 people, which sits on the edge of the "Confiscated/Closed Zone" - a 30km-radius-area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant. It appears on maps as a red stain and will be uninhabitable for over 200 years after the meltdown in 1986.