While many EU member states are looking to abandon nuclear energy, a new nuclear power plant under construction in Belarus and an obsolete nuclear station in Armenia represent a serious danger to European security.
The BelNPP Belarusian nuclear power plant being constructed by Russia’s State Atomic Energy company Rosatom has raised concerns across EU member states including Lithuania, whose capital is located just 50 km from the construction site. Last August Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė described Belarus’ nuclear plans as an ‘existential’ threat to European security.
Safety concerns related to the power plant emerged following a recent explosion at the BelNPP site that caused the death of a Russian contractor. Previously, a 330-tonne reactor casing had fallen from a height of several metres.
Following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany announced that it would end its nuclear power generation. Nine plants have so far been shut down while the remaining eight are scheduled to be decommissioned by 2022. France meanwhile is increasing safety checks on its nuclear power stations, after announcing that it would shut down five nuclear reactors for testing.
The Fukushima catastrophe popped up recently in local elections in Japan with the election of an anti-nuclear governor in Niigata, who promised to halt the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power station. Five years after Fukushima, Only two of the country’s 42 reactors are still running.
Yet, unlike Japan, Belarus seems to have learned nothing from Chernobyl which had a disastrous effect on Belarus. The explosion, in northern Ukraine in 1986 led to the contamination of 2.2 million people, almost a quarter of them children and to the evacuation of more than 2000 villages. Thousands of people were subsequently diagnosed with thyroid cancer following one of the biggest disasters in history.
Another similar disaster could happen in Europe’s backyard again. Armenia’s Metsamor power plant, built in the 1970s with outmoded Soviet technology similar to that of Chernobyl, poses a high risk as it is located in a seismically active area.
The plant’s lack of a cooling mechanism or containment building would inevitably lead to radiation leaks in an event of an accident. Anomalies surrounding the inspection of raw fuel at Metsamor have also been flagged. To top all this, the Armenian authorities recently referred to their possession of a ‘nuclear weapon’ and there are also alarming reports concerning the smuggling of nuclear and waste materials.
The problem is further exacerbated by Armenia’s storage of nuclear waste from Metsamor across 29 radiation centres located in the occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding regions.
The ‘world’s most dangerous’ nuclear power plant as National Geographic called it was shut down following an earthquake in 1988. However its relaunch during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1995 raised widespread concerns.
Describing Metsamor as ‘the oldest and least reliable’ reactor, the EU called for the ‘earliest possible closure’ of the nuclear centre and proposed €200 million to finance its decommissioning. The EU's 2012 Country Progress Report for Armenia under the European Neighbourhood Policy Programme underlined that the power plant ‘cannot be upgraded to meet the internationally recognised nuclear safety standard’.
Similarly, at the 60th general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in September, Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Berat Albayrak said the world could not risk another disaster like Chernobyl and called for Metsamor's closure.
These calls however, have been ignored by Armenia, which depends on Metsamor for 40 per cent of its electricity supplies. And although the plant completed its planned life span back in 2010, Armenia last year announced that the operational life of the plant would be prolonged until 2026 and once again paced its trust in Rosatom for its upgrading.
The EU must not ignore this danger and must stop playing ostrich politics. Taking precautions at home is meaningless while turning a blind eye to these critical developments in the EU's neighbourhood. As was the case with the dismantlement of nuclear power stations in Slovakia and Bulgaria prior to their EU accession Europe's leaders must take the necessary measures to end the construction of BelNPP and stop the Metsamor time bomb.