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Electricity from blocked Belarusian reactor still flowing into the EU

A 2020 pledge by Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to stop buying power from Belarus hasn’t stopped electricity from the country and its controversial Ostrovets nuclear plant from entering the EU.

That’s due to the dynamic way electricity zips through synchronized grids: the Baltics are still synced up with the Russian system, which includes Belarus.

Plans for the Baltics to disconnect from the Russian system and link up with the European continental grid instead won’t happen before 2025 at the earliest.

It’s a major worry for Lithuania, which pushed hard to obtain the regional agreement to block Belarusian imports once the Ostrovets plant was on the grid. There are concerns the new reactor has been rushed into operation without meeting safety standards, as highlighted by the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) in a 2018 report.

Ostrovets lies about 20 kilometers from the Lithuanian border and 200 kilometers from Poland. The plant was connected to the grid November 3, with the first of three new reactors ramped up to full capacity in January as part of pilot operations. 

EU regulators are inspecting the plant this week as part of a voluntary check-up, but a draft preliminary report on their findings won’t be presented until the next ENSREG meeting on March 2 and 3. Belarus hopes to have Ostrovets begin commercial operations in March.

The European Council asked the European Commission in December to explore measures to block imports from non-EU countries should their nuclear power fail to meet EU standards, in a direct reference to the Ostrovets concerns.

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Since the nuclear plant came online in November, official power trading at the Belarus-Lithuania border has been zero, according to Lithuanian transmission system operator LitGrid’s public electricity dashboard.

But Albinas Zananavičius, Lithuania’s deputy energy minister, said the physical flows through the grid tell a different story.

“Electricity being traded in the Latvian bidding zone shows as though it comes through the Latvian/Russian interconnection, but that interconnection is too weak to serve those huge amounts of electricity,” Zananavičius said. “In practice two-thirds of the electricity Latvia trades is being monetized in Riga but comes through our interconnection in Belarus.”

He said Lithuania would be presenting that data to the Commission, Latvia and Estonia this week in hopes the flaw can be addressed, as the European Parliament debates the safety of Ostrovets and its impact on the EU with Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson on Thursday morning.

Latvia acknowledged the issue, but said it could do little to stop it.

“In electricity, there are market issues like trade, and then there is physics — as long as there are power lines between Lithuania and Belarus, electricity will flow there, it’s just physics,” said Inga Iļjina, counselor for energy at Latvia’s permanent representation in Brussels.

Alternating current crackles back and forth over power lines, as every electricity plant connected to the grid pushes power onto the system, waiting for a destination to be sent to.

“As long as the Ostrovets power plant will work, it will pressure electricity through the network, and this is close to Lithuania, so it will always pressure electricity through these lines,” Iljina said.

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As a result, electricity officially sold by Russia to Latvia, which then sells to Lithuania, might actually physically just transit through Belarus as the quickest open path.

The Baltic blockade uses a system of certificates of origin to ensure the power they buy isn’t made in Belarus. But it’s not foolproof: theoretically, Russia could buy Belarusian power and sell it in the EU, claiming it was made in Russia.

Massimo Garribba, the Commission’s deputy director general for energy responsible for the coordination of Euratom policies, said during a January 14 hearing of the European Parliament’s energy committee that the Commission is willing to help strengthen the certificate of origin system.

One option would be to check stated origins against underlying commercial contracts.

“If our Lithuanian neighbors are worried, we are ready and open to discuss maybe some improvements in the system,” Iljina said.

Examining Ostrovets

Zananavičius said his immediate concern is that Belarus is using this week’s EU nuclear check-up mission as false proof that Ostrovets is safe and ready to start operations.

A statement Wednesday from the Belarusian energy ministry about the ongoing inspection claims that “no safety deficiencies have been identified at the [nuclear power plant]” by the EU team in its initial report.

But the voluntary stress tests are designed not to validate a plant’s readiness to operate — which ENSREG leaves to national regulators — but to test a plant’s risk and ability to withstand Fukushima-like accidents such as earthquakes, floods, and prolonged loss of power.

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The review exercise is considered completed only when all safety recommendations have been implemented.

The Commission’s Garribba told MEPs at the January hearing that Belarus had not wanted an EU team to verify its progress on implementation of the 2018 recommendations at all, and that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen personally got involved to secure an agreement for a visit during the Eastern Partnership Leadership Summit in June.

The EU inspectors’ decision to split safety recommendations for Ostrovets into two sections — a high-priority list to be completed before commercial start-up, and other less key issues — is also stoking fears of an unwitting EU-rubberstamp for the site.

“The very fact that they are launching commercial operations before implementing all necessary safety recommendations is really worrying,” said Zananavičius. “For us, of course, the biggest danger is to our capital city, which is only 40 kilometers from the plant, but nuclear contamination could also reach wide areas in the EU, so many countries should be worried about this safety.”

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