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Belarus powers ahead with nuclear project despite some opposition

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Despite opposition in some quarters, Belarus has become the latest in a growing number of countries using nuclear energy.

Each insist nuclear produces clean, reliable and cost-effective electricity.

The EU supports safe nuclear production and one of the newest plants is in Belarus where the first reactor of the country’s first ever nuclear power plant was connected last year to the national grid and earlier this year started fully-fledged commercial operation.

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The Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant, also known as the Astravets plant, will have two operating reactors with a total about 2.4 GW of generation capacity when completed in 2022.

When both units are at full power, the 2382 MWe plant will avoid the emission of more than 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year by replacing carbon-intensive fossil fuels generation.

Belarus is considering construction of a second nuclear power plant which would further reduce its dependency on imported fossil fuels and move the country closer to net-zero.

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Currently, there are about 443 nuclear power reactors operating in 33 countries, providing about 10% of the world's electricity.

About 50 power reactors are currently being constructed in 19 countries.

Sama Bilbao y León, Director General of the World Nuclear Association, the international organisation that represents the global nuclear industry, said: “Evidence is mounting that to keep on a sustainable and low-carbon energy path we need to rapidly accelerate the amount of new nuclear capacity built and connected to the grid globally. The 2.4 GW of new nuclear capacity in Belarus will be a vital contribution to achieving this goal.”

The Belarus plant has faced continued opposition from neighbouring Lithuania where officials have voiced concerns about safety.

The Belarusian energy ministry has said the plant when fully operational will supply about one-third of the country’s electricity requirements.

The plant is reportedly costing about $7-10 billion.

Despite concerns by some MEPs, who have mounted a strong lobbying campaign against the Belarusian plant, international watchdogs, such as International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have welcomed project’s completion.

The IAEA team of experts recently has completed a nuclear security advisory mission in Belarus, carried out at the request of the Belarus government. The aim was to review the national security regime for nuclear material and associated facilities and activities and the visit included a review of physical protection measures implemented at the site, security aspects related to the transport of nuclear material and computer security.

The team, which included experts from France, Switzerland and the UK, concluded that Belarus had established a nuclear security regime in compliance with the IAEA’s guidance on the fundamentals of nuclear security. Good practices were identified that can serve as examples to other IAEA Member States to help strengthen their nuclear security activities.

IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Security Director Elena Buglova said: “By hosting an IPPAS mission, Belarus has demonstrated its strong commitment and continuous efforts to enhance its national nuclear security regime. Belarus has also contributed to refining IPPAS methodologies in recent months, in particular by conducting a pilot self-assessment of its nuclear security regime in preparation for the mission.”

The mission was, in fact, the third IPPAS mission hosted by Belarus, following two which took place in 2000 and 2009 respectively.

Despite efforts to offer reassurances, concerns do persist about the safety of the nuclear industry.

French energy expert Jean-Marie Berniolles concedes that accidents at nuclear plants over the years have “deeply changed” Europe’s perception of nuclear plants, “turning what should have been one of the most sustainable electricity generation sources into a lightning rod for criticism”.

He said: “This is proof of an increasingly ideologically tainted viewpoint entirely divorced from scientific facts.”

France is one country that has fallen out of love with the nuclear technology, culminating in the 2015 Act on the energy transition for green growth that envisions the share of nuclear in France’s energy mix to fall to 50% (down from roughly 75%) by 2025.

There are many who argue that this will be impossible to achieve. 

Berniolles says the Belarus plant is “another example of how nuclear safety is leveraged to prevent NPPs from achieving full and timely operability”.

He said, “Although not a member state of the European Union, several MEPS, at the urging of Lithuania, demanded in February 2021 that Belarus suspend the project over supposed safety concerns.”

Such demands continue to be voiced fervently, even after the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) said that the safety measures at Astravets are squarely in line with European standards. The peer reviewed report – published after extensive site visits and safety evaluations – said that the reactors as well as the NPP’s location are “no cause for concern”.

Indeed, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi stated in a recent European Parliament hearing that: “We’ve been engaging with Belarus for a long time,” “we are present in the field all the time”, and the IAEA has found “good practices and things to improve but we have not found any reason for that plant not to operate”.

The Belarus plant’s opponents continue to draw comparisons to Chernobyl but Berniolles says that “one of the fundamental lessons gleaned from Chernobyl was that complete core melt-throughs needed to be thoroughly contained”.

“This is usually carried out with a device called a core-catcher, and every VVER-1200 reactor – two of which are in Astravets – is equipped with it. The core-catcher’s cooling system must be able to cool the core debris where a thermal power of about 50 MW is generated during the first days following the nuclear accident. No neutronic excursion occurs under these circumstances, in what is another fundamental difference to Chernobyl. Given that European safety experts have not raised these issues during their analyses of Astravets indicates that there are no problems with these measures,” he added.

He and others note that while Lithuania and some MEPs may have spent years criticising the plant’s safety measures “the fact is that they were never found to be seriously lacking”.

Belarus

International sanctions: Easy to misapply and hard to reverse

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In June of this year, after the Lukashenko government’s forced grounding of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, the EU announced that 78 persons and seven entities would be added to their sanctions against Belarus. Following suit this Monday (13 September), the UK government imposed a raft of trade, financial, and aviation restrictions in response to the abuses of the Lukashenko regime. One controversial inclusion in both rounds of sanctions was Mikhail Gutseriev, the Russian entrepreneur and philanthropist, who has business interests in the Belarusian energy and hospitality sectors. Many have been puzzled as to why Gutseriev, as a businessman with investments all over the world, has been targeted in connection to his relatively limited involvement in Belarus. His case has also raised broader questions and initiated a debate about the efficacy of sanctions which confer guilt by association, rather than punish known lawbreakers, writes Colin Stevens.

The EU’s ‘restrictive measures’

Starting with the EU’s approach, the block has a well-established process for executing ‘restrictive measures’, the primary tool of its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). European sanctions have four key objectives: safeguarding the EU’s interests and security, preserving the peace, supporting democracy and human rights, and strengthening international security. If sanctions are imposed, they can fall on governments, companies, groups or organisations, and individuals. In terms of ratification, the EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security representative, and the European Commission, make a joint sanction proposal, which is then voted on by the European Council. If the vote is passed, the EU’s court will then decide if the measure protects ‘human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular due process and the right to an effective remedy’. Note that the European Parliament, the EU’s democratically elected chamber, is kept informed of the proceedings but can neither reject nor ratify the sanctions.

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The difficulty of application

When adding an individual or entity to their sanctions list, the EU sets out why they deem the measure to be appropriate. Returning to the controversial case of Mikhail Gutseriev, the block has accused Gutseriev of ‘benefitting from and supporting the Lukashenko regime’. They describe him as a ‘long-time friend’ of the President, the supposed smoking gun being two times when both men were confirmed to be in the same vicinity. The first was at the opening of a new Orthodox church, which Gutseriev had sponsored, and the second was at Lukashenko’s swearing-in as President, what the EU describes as a ‘secret’ event, despite it being broadcast on TV and being open to the public. The EU also reports that Lukashenko once thanked Gutseriev for the money he had given to Belarusian charities and the billions of dollars he had invested in the country.

Taking a step back, it’s clear that the EU is working on the basis of guilt by association – Gutseriev has been in Lukashenko’s orbit, ergo he is a supporter of his regime. However, the problem with the EU’s approach is that there is little hard evidence of a genuine closeness between the two men. What is there to say that Gutseriev did not simply maintain a working relationship with the President so that he could continue to invest and run his businesses in Belarus? In a communication explaining its internal process, the European Commission states that restrictive measures are imposed ‘to bring about a change in policy activity…by entities or individuals’. To change a harmful policy is of course desirable, but the EU must be careful not to disincentivise the small group of investors who take the risk of operating in, and making charitable donations to, low-income countries with unstable leaderships.

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The UK’s position

Considering this potential drawback in their approach, the EU will undoubtedly have been pleased that the British government has likewise targeted Lukashenko and those deemed to be close to him. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, accused the Belarusian President of crushing democracy and outlined that action would be taken against the country’s state-owned industries and aerospace companies. In general, the UK’s sanctioning process has similar objectives to the EU’s, and both favour trade and financial measures, such as arms embargoes and asset freezes. Like their partners in Europe, the British government will be hoping that they can change Lukashenko’s policies and approach, without inflicting unnecessary economic harm on ordinary Belarussians. Yet history shows that finding this balance is far from easy. Going back to the early 2000s, the British government and the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus and Zimbabwe, and on their wealthy elites. Judging by the positions of both countries now, with Belarus under Lukashenko, and Zimbabwe still beset by economic woes and internal conflict, one would be hard pressed to say that such an approach had been a success.

Getting things right

In fairness to the EU and the UK, they have clarified that they want to avoid adverse consequences for those not responsible for the policies and actions in question. However, by ascribing sanctions on the basis of guilt by association, both parties run the risk of doing exactly that. Hassan Blasim, the celebrated Kurdish film director who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime, said that the West’s economic sanctions meant that ‘life was almost dead’ in Iraq in the 1990s. What’s more, it was a hugely controversial invasion, not the regime of sanctions, which eventually led to Hussein’s downfall. Western diplomats may be trying their best to avoid doing similar damage today, but they should be careful not to undermine the investment and enterprise, the lifeblood of any economy, that Belarus will need to rebuild in the future.

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Belarus: Sentencing of Marya Kaliesnikava and Maksim Znak

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Today (6 September) in Minsk political prisoners Marya Kaliesnikava and Maksim Znak were sentenced to 11 and 10 years in prison respectively. In August 2020, Marya Kaliesnikava, together with Ms Tsikhanouskaya and Ms Tsepkalo, became a symbol of the movement for democratic Belarus. In a trial behind closed doors, together with a prominent lawyer, Mr Znak, she was tried on unfounded charges of “conspiring to seize state power in an unconstitutional way”, “calling for actions aimed at damaging the national security of Belarus through the use of media and the internet” and “establishing and leading and an extremist group”.

In a statement the EU's External Action Service said: "The EU deplores the continuous blatant disrespect by the Minsk regime of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus. The EU also reiterates its demands for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Belarus (now numbering more than 650), including Ms Kaliesnikava and Mr Znak, journalists and all people who are behind bars for exercising their rights. Belarus must adhere to its international commitments and obligations within the UN and OSCE. The EU will continue its efforts to promote accountability for the brutal repression by the Belarusian authorities."

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Poland declares state of emergency on Belarus border amid migrant surge

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Polish border guard officers stand guard next to a group of migrants stranded on the border between Belarus and Poland near the village of Usnarz Gorny, Poland September 1, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Poland declared a state of emergency in two regions bordering Belarus last week following a surge of illegal migration that Warsaw has blamed on its neighbour, write Alan Charlish, Pawel Florkiewicz, Joanna Plucinska, Alicja Ptak, Anna Koper and Matthias Williams, Reuters.

Poland and the European Union have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of encouraging hundreds of migrants to cross into Polish territory to put pressure on the bloc over sanctions it has imposed on Minsk.

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The emergency order - the first of its kind in Poland since communist times - banned mass gatherings and limited people's movements in a 3-km (2-mile) deep strip of land along the frontier for 30 days, the government said.

Aid groups working with migrants said there had already been an increase in Polish police and armoured vehicles in the area in recent days, and that they were worried the order would limit their work and leave refugees stranded.

"The atmosphere is generally violent, there are uniformed, armed servicemen everywhere...it reminds me of war," Marta Anna Kurzyniec, a resident of the Polish border town of Krynki, told Reuters

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Poland began building a barbed wire fence last week to curb the flow of migrants from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The EU imposed economic sanctions on Belarus following a disputed election in August 2020 and a crackdown on the opposition, and says Lukashenko has deliberately encouraged migrants to cross into Poland, Latvia and Lithuania in retaliation.

Belarus' Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei on Thursday blamed "Western politicians" for the situation on the borders, Belarusian state news agency Belta reported.

"Belarus has always honored all the provisions of our agreements to the letter," Makei told a news conference.

Polish presidential spokesman Blazej Spychalski said the situation on the border was "difficult and dangerous".

"Today, we as Poland, being responsible for our own borders, but also for the borders of the European Union, must take measures to ensure the security of Poland and the (EU)," he said.

Rights activists have accused Polish authorities of denying adequate medical care to stranded migrants. Warsaw says they are the responsibility of Belarus.

Marysia Zlonkiewicz from the aid group Chlebem i Solą (With Bread and Salt) said police had asked them to stop their activity along the border before the state of emergency was announced.

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