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2020 Sakharov Prize awarded to the democratic opposition in Belarus

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Democratic forces in Belarus have been protesting the brutal regime since August 

The democratic opposition in Belarus has been awarded the 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. European Parliament President David Sassoli announced the laureates in the Brussels plenary chamber at noon today (22 October), following an earlier decision by the Conference of Presidents (president and political group leaders).

“Let me congratulate the representatives of the Belarusian opposition for their courage, resilience and determination. They have stood and still stay strong in the face of a much stronger adversary. But they have on their side something that brute force can never defeat - and this is the truth. So my message for you, dear laureates, is to stay strong and not to give up on your fight. Know that we are by your side,” President Sassoli said, following the decision.

“I would also like to add a word on the recent killing of one of this year’s finalists, Arnold Joaquín Morazán Erazo, part of the Guapinol environmental group. The group is opposing an iron oxide mine in Honduras. It is imperative that a credible, independent and immediate investigation is launched into this case and those responsible must be held to account,” he added.

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Protesting against a brutal regime

The democratic opposition in Belarus is represented by the Coordination Council, an initiative of brave women, as well as prominent political and civil society figures. Read more about the laureates, as well as the other finalists here.

Belarus has been in the midst of a political crisis since the disputed presidential elections on 9 August, which led to an uprising against authoritarian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka and a subsequent brutal crackdown on demonstrators by the regime.

The Sakharov award ceremony will be held on 16 December.

On Wednesday (21 October), Parliament also adopted new recommendations calling for a comprehensive review of the EU's relations with Belarus. Read more here.

Background

The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is awarded each year by the European Parliament. It was set up in 1988 to honour individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is named in honour of Soviet physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov and the prize money is €50,000.

Last year, the prize was given to Ilham Tohti, an Uyghur economist fighting for the rights of China’s Uyghur minority.

Belarus

Ukraine aims to build a Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility, challenges the global environment

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With major climate and environmental challenges the world is facing today, a tiny risk that may provoke further damage to the nature (not to mention a global threat) must be calculated with extra dedication to details. And Ukraine is not an exception, writes Olga Malik.

As the country’s new Chernobyl Interim Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility (ISF-2) was granted an operating license earlier in April, Ukraine started the loading of used fuel into the containerized dry storage systems. On July 8, the first part of the spent nuclear fuel was loaded to the ISF-2.

Yet, this poses many questions, even among the country’s authorities, as the experiment might not be as safe as it initially seemed to.

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According to Stanislav Mitrahovich, the leading expert of the National Energy Security Fund, the major operation risk of the ISF-2 is that it is ground-based and the transportation of the nuclear waste will also be operated through the surface transit. Designed by Holtec International, the price of $1,4 Storage project, according to Energoatom, the main operator and investor of the ISF-2, is multiples higher than its real cost. Moreover, due to the limited number of nuclear storage space in Ukraine, the spent fuel to ISF-2 will be transported throughout the country that poses a great ecological threat not only to Ukrainian cities, but to all Europe.

Ironically it may seem, the previous project of the new Chernobyl Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility designed by the French’s Framatom was a big failure, as the Ukraine authorities admit. For instance, the Storage’s bulk had fractures water system flaws. For Holtec International, that redesigned and completed the construction, the ISF-2 is an experiment, as the company has never implemented similar facilities before. Needless to say, that the safety of this “experiment” must be a priority for the global nuclear energy community, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and WANO Biennial General Meeting, for the world will not survive a second Chernobyl disaster.

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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.

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”.

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On Washington visit, Belarus opposition leader asks US for more help

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Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya looks on after taking part in a panel discussion with Belarusian film director Aliaksei Paluyan in Berlin, Germany, 11 June. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (pictured) appealed on Monday (19 July) for more help from the United States as she began a visit to Washington for meetings with top Biden administration officials this week, write Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has kept a tight grip on Belarus since 1994 and has cracked down on street protests that began over a presidential election last August that his opponents say was rigged so that he could retain power.

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Tsikhanouskaya, 38, was a candidate in the election instead of her husband, Sergei Tsikhanouskiy, a video blogger who has been jailed since May 2020 on charges such as violating public order, which he denies. Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighboring Lithuania after Lukashenko's crackdown.

She met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland and State Department Counselor Derek Chollet, the State Department said in a statement.

It said they discussed the need for the Lukashenko government's "crackdown to end, along with the unconditional release of all political prisoners in Belarus, and an inclusive political dialogue and new presidential elections under international observation".

Tsikhanouskaya also had meetings planned this week with senior White House officials, a senior administration official said.

She told CNN that more help was needed from the United States and the European Union.

"The USA has a moral obligation to be with us. I ask the USA to help civil society survive," she said. "Stand with Belarus."

The senior administration official said the United States "stands with" Tsikhanouskaya and the people of Belarus and "will continue to support their democratic aspirations."

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