The Astravyets nuclear power plant under construction in Belarus, not far from the border with Lithuania, is a serious project that preliminary meets the International Atomic Energy Agency's safety standards, one of the agency's heads said in an interview with BNS.
Astravyets nuclear power plant in Belarus
© AFP / Scanpix

IAEA Deputy Director General Juan Carlos Lentijo, on a visit to Lithuania, says that the agency did not review the site selection process during its Site and External Events Design (SEED) mission to Belarus in January because it had not been asked to by the host country.

"We have our assistance services also through peer reviews or, let's say, assistance evaluations, etc. But it is up to the member states to request. We don't have the means to push or request that the country request our services. We are ready to provide our services," he said.

Lentijo, who heads the agency's Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, thinks that Belarus should step up cooperation with Lithuania to show the neighboring country that it is ready to ensure nuclear safety. Commenting on Belarus' unwillingness to inform its neighbors about incidents on the Astravyets construction site, the director general noted that these had not been nuclear safety events, but added that the agency nevertheless encouraged countries to report such events.

The IAEA experts said during the SEED mission in mid-January that Belarus had taken proper account of external hazards to the Astravyets nuclear power plant construction site. The Lithuanian government said that the mission had not covered the site selection criteria, seismic surveys and environmental impact.

BNS: I would like to ask you about the SEED mission in Belarus. Is the Atomic Energy Agency sure that the nuclear power plant will be safe?

Lentijo: Well, let me highlight that nuclear safety is national responsibility of the country using nuclear technologies. What we know in the case of the Belarusian nuclear power plant is that Belarus has a history of cooperation with the agency. They are used to requesting our services and in particular the last one that you mentioned was the SEED mission that was focused on a specific part of the project. That means that it is the national authorities who could really respond to this question.

BNS: There are different opinions. At least Lithuania is not confident that the Belarusian nuclear power plant will be safe and there is criticism toward the SEED mission. Lithuania says that only two out of six modules were covered during the mission. So how many modules were actually covered?

Lentijo: The agency offers SEED missions in a modular way. That means that there are several modules that are adapted to specific cases and SEED missions are as any other mission deployed under the request of member states. It is up to the requesting or the host country to select the modules that in its consideration better fit the specific stage of the project. In this particular case, what Belarusians selected where those modules that are related to the accuracy of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, with the current status of construction. (...)

These were focused mainly on the external hazards assessment, in particular the cover flight areas, the characterization of the site, how they characterized site hazards; secondly, how they are screening the site's hazards to determine what are the relevant ones for the plant. The third area that was covered was in relation to the design. How the design took into consideration these screened hazards, then monitoring, because in nuclear power plants, an external hazard needs to be monitored along the life of the facility.

And, finally, the SEED also covered some specific challenges that were highlighted in our report on the Fukushima accident. Having said that, I think that the main preliminary conclusion of the SEED team -- I insist that it is preliminary, because the report is not yet finished and is currently under preparation by the team -- but the preliminary findings indicate that the Belarusian nuclear power plant's design is considering what they have screened as external hazards.

BNS: Speaking about the power plant's site. Lithuania says that review needs to be done on the site selection process. It wasn't done in the SEED mission, was it?

Lentijo: It did not cover the site selection. As I mentioned before, our SEED missions are modular and it is up to member states requesting the service to select the modules. (...) And I assume that Belarusians made a decision to request this mission just to be sure that the main hazards from the side were appropriately considered by the design.

BNS: In your experience, do member states usually request a site review?

Lentijo: Well, there are several international instruments to promote the consultation process or the cooperation process in this area. And it is not for the agency to evaluate specific cases.

BNS: As far as I understand, the agency's experts cannot request information from the state if it is not asking for experts' assessment in specific areas?

Lentijo: I insist that nuclear safety is a responsibility of its country. The agency can and plays a role to support, to assist the member states through several instruments. One of these is our safety standards that are available to them. (...) And we have our assistance services also through peer reviews or, let's say, assistance evaluations, etc. But it is up to the member states to request. We don't have the means to push or request that the country request our services. We are ready to provide our services.

BNS: I would like to ask you what can be done if a state ignores safety standards.

Lentijo: Firstly, safety standards are not mandatory for any states. The safety standards are only mandatory for the agency, for our own activities and also they are, as I mentioned before, the documents that we use to benchmark the national systems when we are requested to contact an assistance service or review service, etc. But having said that, there are several international instruments that member states use to demonstrate their commitment to safety. For example, there is the convention on nuclear safety or the joint convention on the safe management of fuel or safe management of waste. And through these instruments countries exchange information on their national experience regarding nuclear safety. I think that these are major instruments that countries have at hand to prove their commitment to safety.

The agency usually encourages all member states to conduct the programs in cooperation with international community, including the agency, neighboring countries, other countries, and, of course, we have this role to encourage, to facilitate international cooperation. (...) But it is obvious that mechanisms they have at hand to express the real commitment to nuclear safety at the international level are the conventions. And, of course, another relevant instrument, as I mentioned before, is for them to use our services. For example, in Belarus, after the SEED mission, we have only the preliminary conclusions and the report is currently under development, under final preparation. As far as I know, the government of Belarus is committed to publish this report, to make this report public. That will help other countries, including Lithuania, to know more about the conclusions of this independent mission, about independent peer review missions. And to make their own opinion on the situation.

BNS: One of the challenges for Lithuania is that for Vilnius, because the Belarusian power plant is around 50 kilometers away. In your view, what should be done in Lithuania to make sure that Vilnius is as safe as possible if the worst case scenario happens?

Lentijo: It is important that cooperation between or among different countries is strengthened. And I think it is very important for neighboring countries -- Belarus or any other country operating nuclear facilities -- to establish close cooperation with the neighbors. And it is important for the neighbors to establish channels to facilitate the getting of information that is relevant for protecting their own citizens. I think that, in the end, as I mentioned before, nuclear safety is national responsibility both for countries operating the nuclear power plant, but also for countries next to its borders. (...) The agency is promoting close cooperation, close consultation between countries to facilitate this exchange of information, which is relevant to determine what kind of plans you should develop in Lithuania, for example, to be sure that if something happens, you can deploy an emergency response that is sufficient to protect the Lithuanian population.

BNS: Cooperation between the countries is, I'd say, weak, at least at the moment, because there were some accidents on the construction site -- a reactor shell fell, other things happened -- and Belarus did not notify other countries and it was only after the media uncovered these accidents that they published this information. This doesn't encourage Lithuania to believe that everything will be OK with communication.

Lentijo: There are many elements in that issue, because, initially, we should start by saying that the construction site in Belarus is not yet a nuclear facility; it's a construction site; there is no nuclear material there. We have several international systems to facilitate the communication of events that could be relevant for nuclear safety with the idea to exchange this information with other countries and to facilitate the dissemination of lessons that could be learned from these.

The events that you mentioned occurred on a site under construction; from this point of view, there is not anything touching upon a nuclear safety event. But we are trying to encourage the community to communicate even this kind of events as a way to enhance trustability, to enhance, to facilitate the process between or among different countries. And beyond that, we consider that these kind of events could be also relevant not only for neighboring countries, but even for other countries that are currently building their nuclear power plants; they could have a very good experience and don't repeat the same event in their projects.

The agency promotes the exchange of this information. I don't know what specific elements under communication between Lithuania and Belarus on the events occurring in the construction site phase are. Belarus communicated to the agency several of these events, but it was not under the umbrella of the current reporting system which is specifically deployed for nuclear power plants under operation or when there is nuclear fuel there.

BNS: Will you come to Vilnius after the Belarusian nuclear power plant starts working?

Lentijo: Why not? I was at the construction site last year; my perception was that it is a serious project. (...) I don't see any reason for not visiting the Belarusian nuclear power plant in the future while I am visiting many others in the world.

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