WNISR, 6 November 2020
Ostrovets-1, the first nuclear power reactor in Belarus, was connected to the grid on 3 November 2020. Announcing the operation, Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev said, “The first kilowatt-hours of electric energy delivered by the Belarus NPP [Nuclear Power Plant] to the unified power grid system is a landmark to manifest the beginning of the nuclear age for the Republic of Belarus.”
This is the fourth startup of a nuclear power plant in the world in 2020, following grid connections in China, Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Over the same period, four units were closed, two each in France and the USA.
Due to safety concerns, construction and operation of the Ostrovets plant has been strongly opposed by neighboring Baltic states. On 27 October 2020, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs submitted a formal protest to the Belarus foreign ministry citing its “irresponsible and hasty launch of the Ostrovets nuclear power plant (NPP), which poses security threats to the citizens of Lithuania, Belarus, and the European Union.” The Ostrovets site lies 50 km from Lithuania’s capital Vilnius. Grid connection of Ostrovets-1 led the Lithuanian government to immediately announce termination of all electricity imports from Belarus, while Latvia said it had also blocked imports of electricity generated by the reactor.
In October 2011, a contract was signed between the Belarus Nuclear Power Plant Construction Directorate, and Russia’s AtomStroyExport (ASE). Construction at the reactor, also known as Belarusian-1, started in November 2013. Construction of the second reactor was started at the Ostrovets site in June 2014. Both units are of the VVER-1200 MWe AES-2006 design.
Grid connection of Unit 1 was three years behind schedule, originally scheduled to be commissioned in 2017 with Unit 2 planned for 2018. After several delays Unit 2 is due for grid connection in 2021.
The first independent assessment of the VVER design, the Ostrovets VVER-1200s, was completed by the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) in June 2018. ENSREG concluded that there were significant issues related to the design and safety systems. The assessment of ENSREG contrasts with Rosatom claims that, "They are absolutely safe in operation and fully meet the IAEA’s post-Fukushima requirements.”
The project is the focus of international opposition and criticism, with formal complaints from the Lithuanian Government that has published a list of fundamental problems of the project. These include claims of major construction issues, doubts about the site suitability and accusations of non-compliance with some of its public engagement obligations according to the Espoo Convention. Belarus was in 2017 found in non-compliance with the Aarhus Convention for harassing members of civil society campaigning against the project.
In February 2020, the Governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania put out an unprecedented joint declaration that they would oppose electricity purchases from the nuclear power plant. In addition, in May 2020, the Lithuanian Parliament passed a resolution on Energy Independence proposing that the Government take technical means to block electricity from Belarus. The sale of electricity to the West will be vital for the economics of the project, as increasing domestic consumption or even sale back to Russia will raise significantly lower revenues due to lower prices.