Vilnius Postpones Nuclear Accident Drill Despite Radiation Threats

Construction continues on the power plant in Belarus despite Lithuania’s objections. (Wikimedia Commons)

Construction continues on the power plant in Belarus despite Lithuania’s objections. (Wikimedia Commons)

Vilnius officials have canceled city-wide drills, initially planned for early September, to prepare for a potential nuclear radiation leak from the Astravyets Power Plant in Belarus. Despite claims by Lithuanian authorities that the plant does not meet international safety standards, Lithuanian National Radio (LRT) reports that the plant will begin launching nuclear reactors this fall. 

The Astravyets Power Plant is a Russian-built plant in western Belarus, just 25 miles from the Lithuanian capital. In a statement released at the beginning of the plant’s construction, Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised questions about the quality and safety of the plant. A major concern is location, as the Astravyets plant is built on land with seismic risks. An earthquake in that area of Belarus could cause disaster in the nuclear plant. 

In addition, several accidents occurred during construction, culminating in the deaths of three workers. For instance, according to TIME, a 330-ton casing fell from a crane during construction. Lithuania flagged Belarus’s initial failure to disclose some of these accidents as particularly troubling.

Other concerns stem from the facility’s builders, the Russian state-run company Rosatom Corp. TIME reports that Rosatom recently oversaw a missile test in northern Russia in which a reactor exploded and five scientists died. Following the incident, scientists detected high radiation levels on the White Sea near the site. Despite Lithuanian concerns, Belarus has continued to partner with Rosatom for the construction of the nuclear plant.  

Vilnius initially planned a drill to prepare its citizens for what officials perceive as a looming disaster. However, LRT reports that the government called the drill off in late August. The former interior minister, Eimutis Misiūnas, explained that the drills “would have disclosed a lot of drawbacks and problems in the whole system” and caused “unnecessary” panic among the population. The Lithuanian government has instead scheduled a country-wide exercise in October and purchased $1 million in iodine pills, according to Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe (RFE/RL). Furthermore, Lithuanian authorities have established evacuation routes and are testing emergency sirens.

The standoff between Lithuania and Belarus has entangled a variety of other countries. Lithuania has increased the pressure on Belarus to drop the project by introducing a law that would ban the sale of nuclear energy produced in Astravyets, according to RFE/RL. Many neighboring Scandinavian and Baltic states, as well as Poland, have backed the law which implies huge potential revenue losses for Belarus. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has also recommended that the construction in Astravyets be suspended.

While Minsk has responded by claiming that nuclear energy is an outlet that will allow Belarus to wean off Russian oil dependency, Lithuanian officials pointed out that Russia constructed the plant on Belorussian soil. 

"The Astravyets nuclear power plant is a Russian geopolitical project, directed against Lithuania,” said Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, per RFE/RL.

As the feud between the two nations continues, the EU and Russia have played an increasingly larger role, leading observers to wonder if this struggle between two small Eastern European nations signifies a larger power struggle at play.