Belarus opens nuclear plant opposed by neighboring Lithuania

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, right, attends the first Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant during the plant’s power launch event outside the city of Astravets, Belarus, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday formally opened the country’s first nuclear power plant, a project sharply criticized by neighboring Lithuania. Lukashenko said the launch of the Russian-built and -financed Astravyets plant “will serve as an impetus for attracting the most advanced technologies to the country. and innovative directions in science and education.” (Nikolai Petrov/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday formally opened the country’s first nuclear power plant, a project sharply criticized by neighboring Lithuania.

Lukashenko said the launch of the Russian-built and -financed Astravyets plant “will serve as an impetus for attracting the most advanced technologies to the country, and innovative directions in science and education.”

Lithuania has long opposed the plant, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of its capital, Vilnius. Lithuanian authorities say the project has been plagued by accidents, stolen materials and the mistreatment of workers.

In line with a law banning electricity imports from Belarus once the nuclear plant started up, Lithuania’s Litgrid power operator cut the inflow of electricity from Belarus when the plant began producing electricity on Tuesday.

Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom, which built the plant, has rejected the Lithuanian complaints, saying the plant’s design conforms to the highest international standards as confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Upon its planned completion in 2022, the plant is to have two reactor units, each generating 1200 megawatts. Currently, the one working reactor is generating 400 megawatts.

The power plant’s construction was delayed when a reactor vessel slipped to the ground in 2016 after workers failed to strap it properly during installation. Rosatom insisted at the time that the reactor wasn’t damaged, but it agreed to replace the unit at the demand of Belarusian authorities.

Belarus suffered severe damage from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which spewed radioactive fallout from a plant in then-Soviet Ukraine across large areas of Europe. That painful legacy has fueled opposition to the nuclear plant project in Belarus.

Andrei Sannikov, a prominent opposition figure who was imprisoned for 16 months after running against Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential election, tweeted Saturday that the plant constitutes a “geopolitical weapon” against the European Union.

Lithuania closed its sole Soviet-built nuclear power plant in 2009. In recent weeks, Lithuanian authorities have handed out free iodine pills to residents living near the Belarus border. Iodine can help reduce radiation buildup in the thyroid in case of a leak at the nuclear plant.

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