Belarus - fighting nuclear power in the shadow of Chernobyl

Tatyana Novikova (centre) at Aarhus, Denmark in a delegation from environmental NGO Ecohome to demand access to information about the Ostrovets nuclear power station under the Aarhus Convention. Photo: Ecohome.

Tatyana Novikova (centre) at Aarhus, Denmark in a delegation from environmental NGO Ecohome to demand access to information about the Ostrovets nuclear power station under the Aarhus Convention. Photo: Ecohome.

Tatyana Novikova has been fighting an unsafe nuclear power plant right on the country's border with Lithuania. She spoke to Chris Garrard about her campaign, the official persecution of anti-nuclear activists, and her invocation of the Aarhus Convention to the anti-nuclear cause.
It was not just arrest but the mockery - all five days I spent in a dark, wet and insanitary space. We had no walks and we slept on the wooden floor with no bed with other prisoners ...

Tatyana Novikova is an environmental campaigner and journalist from Belarus.

Her home lies a short distance from the construction site of the Ostrovets (aka Astravets) nuclear plant, of which she is an outspoken opponent.

A key member of the environmental NGO Ecohome, she was given a Viktar Ivashkevich human rights award in 2013 by the independent Belarusian news site, Charter 97. I took the opportunity to meet her on a recent trip to London organised by the Belarus Free Theatre

I asked Tatyana, "Where do you draw your strength from as an activist? How do you keep going with your campaign?"

Tatyana answered, "I do not understand this question. What else could I do?"

Taking a stand on a pressing issue of environmental or social justice is often viewed as a conscious decision that a person has made to take a stand.

For Tatyana Novikova though, campaigning against the construction of a new nuclear power plant at Ostrovets in Belarus was much less of a choice.

Her own house is only a short distance away from the construction site and, like the majority of Belarusian citizens, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 is still a recent memory.

The cloud from Chernobyl covered almost the entire territory of Belarus and studies have observed that all the areas affected by the radioactive fallout have seen a significant rise in the overall sickness rate.

Fighting Ostrovets means fighting the dictator

For some years now, Tatyana has been an environmental activist at the forefront of resisting this new plant, which if built will be the first in Belarus - a project being pushed ahead by the country's 'President' and dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.

"The decision [to build a new plant at Ostrovets] was very unbelievable for us because all the scientists and experts in Belarus know that the citizens suffered, and still suffer [from Chernobyl]. It is very serious for us because many people died from thyroid cancer."

Following international policy discussions in Maastricht, Tatyana had joined us in London for a number of meetings, interviews and an after-show discussion. When I met her at the airport, I offered to buy her a bottle of water. She declined but eagerly set off for a tap to refill her bottle.

As I discovered during the course of her stay, Tatyana's activism runs deep, from her everyday actions to her commitment to her campaign. I was curious how she had first become involved in environmentalism and what had motivated her.

In Belarus, nuclear opponents are 'enemies of the state'

In 1993, she says, "I worked as a mathematician in the Academy of Sciences where we worked with people who made maps of [the] Chernobyl consequences ... I started to get more information about the consequences of nuclear power - it was very serious."

It was not just arrest but the mockery - all five days I spent in a dark, wet and insanitary space. We had no walks and we slept on the wooden floor with no bed with other prisoners ...

Over the years, Tatyana has developed a thorough understanding of the risks of nuclear energy and radiation, working alongside many specialists and experts in the field.

However, it is not simply an objection to nuclear power that is behind their campaign but also a response to the intimidation her and her colleagues have faced for simply offering an opposing view. In a speech during 'Chernobyl Day' in 2008, Lukashenko made his views explicit.

"[He] tells us that the nuclear power plant construction is very important for the security and safety of Belarus ... He said that these guys who are against the nuclear power plant are 'enemies of the state'."

This strong statement by Lukashenko was followed by the intimidation and arrest of anti-nuclear campaigners, including Tatyana and her colleagues. The repression began in 2009 as activists were searched, detained and arrested, with a number being deported.

The Aarhus Convention to the rescue?

However, it was only in July of this year that the Compliance Committee of the Aarhus Convention, an international agreement governing access to information to the decision-making process related to environmental matters, opened a case about the harassment of environmental activists in Belarus.

The government had to discuss its plans to build the new nuclear plant at Ostrovets with us and other environmentally concerned people, because it had signed up to the Aarhus Convention, says Tatyana.

"But the government told us, 'No, we have taken the decision already. Your view is not important for us.'"

The government's disregard for opposition voices, in combination with the legacy of Chernobyl, provided the foundation for a campaign resisting the new power plant. However, Tatyana and her colleagues decided to be thorough and specific in their approach.

"Our campaign started with looking for strong arguments. You can say 'I am against nuclear' but it will not have a serious impact on the government. You have to say why you are concerned. So, we started to analyse the official documentation ... "

In March 2010, Tatyana and a team of independent researchers put together an analysis of the plans for a new plant, an analysis which stood in stark contrast to the government's own documentation.

"What we see in the documentation is big errors and no professional analysis. We analysed this documentation with our big team of fifty experts - professors and specialists ... They told us it is bad documentation with a lot of errors ... "

The conclusion, she says, is that the government's insistence that the plant is safe is "incorrect". Ivan Nikitchenko, the chairman of this independent expert commission, stated that the potential impact to public health of a new nuclear power plant would be "dramatic".

Build first, design later

Over the course of her visit, Tatyana told me about the many shortcomings of the project but one fact in particular stood out.

The government began to build the foundations of the first reactor building on May 21st 2012, nearly a year before an architectural design was in place. Even the license for construction was not issued until September 2013.

In its Environmental Impact Assessment, the Belarusian government claims that a severe accident at one of the Ostrovets VVER-1200 reactors (aka NPP-2006 / AES-2006) would not cause any harmful effects outside of the plant area and that the evacuation of the surrounding population would be unnecessary.

However, flexRISK, the Austrian research team, disproved this claim by analysing the potential effects of a severe accident at one of reactors. They identified that Cesium-137 pollution could cause the evacuation of the population within a range of 300 kilometres of the plant. The Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, lies just 50km away to the west.

Tatyana pointed out that these risks are greatly increased due to the experimental nature of the project - the chosen design for the plant has never been completed and put into operation before, although other examples are under construction.

Arrested - but what was the crime?

Tatyana explained to me that the plant is not just a Belarusian project but is, in reality, a collaboration with the Russian government. It is Russian investment and their provision of reactors that has allowed the project to move forward.

When the Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, came to Belarus to finalise the arrangement, Tatyana and her colleagues decided to bring their findings to his attention.

"Medvedev came to Belarus to sign [the] contract on the construction of the new nuclear power plant ... and we were approaching the Embassy of Russia with a letter addressed to Medvedev, informing him that the construction of the reactor building at the nuclear power plant was started without an architectural plan, without a licence, with violations of technical norms in international law."

They were all arrested - at Tatyana was held in custody for five days. Later, during the original public hearings of the Environmental Impact Assessment, one of the project's critics, Andrey Ozharovskiy, a Russian nuclear expert, was arrested for seven days, preventing his objections from being heard.

He was also part of Tatyana's group that planned to deliver the letter to Medvedev. Like Tatyana, Ozharovskiy was also arrested but imprisoned for ten days and then deported and banned from entering Belarus for ten years.

"It was not just arrest but the mockery - all five days I spent in a dark, wet and insanitary space. We had no walks and we slept on the wooden floor with no bed with other prisoners ... Every day they searched for handovers from relatives during the deep nights."

More harassment and obstruction

Since that time, Tatyana and her colleagues have encountered other forms of harassment. For example, she is one of the key organisers of the annual Chernobyl March in Minsk, an event sanctioned by the local authority.

However, when her and a friend were about to leave for a recent march, banners in hand, they found that the police had surrounded the flat they were staying in. Even climbing out of the window was not an option, as a member of the KGB, the state security service, was stood on guard outside dressed in plain clothes.

The campaign against the plant so far has been effective at raising awareness, locally and at international policy forums. However, it is this intimidation that Tatyana feels has prevented other people in Belarus from more actively supporting their campaign.

"My country is not a country of big democracy which is why people think they could not make a difference, affect decisions ... they are afraid. For example, they read articles in the paper that I am arrested.

"I have thyroid cancer, I have two types of cancer ... and in the jail I cannot access medication. People are afraid, afraid to raise their voice, because they understand that they could be arrested and no [explanations] will prevent this arrest."

The slow progress of 'soft diplomacy'

Some 48 hours before I met Tatyana, she had been at the meeting of the parties of the Aarhus Convention in Maastricht. At that meeting, a decision was adopted on Belarus's failure to comply with the convention.

The EU delegation took the decision to make a special statement on the issue, suggesting that they would move for a caution to be made to Belarus if they did not eventually fully comply with the convention.

This time though, the recommendations that were made to Belarus remained unchanged. The process of international policy negotiations was clearly frustrating for Tatyana, as the convention has so far only delivered 'soft' decisions in the form of 'recommendations'.

Since it came into force in 2001, the Aarhus Convention has only halted one construction project, in Ukraine, because of its violations.

The Aarhus and Espoo Conventions are key pieces of international legislation that need to be enforced but there are other avenues to be explored.

Tatyana explained that the Swedish multinational, Alfa Laval, had recently won the contract to supply heat exchangers for the plant - a risky deal given the plant's current status and a deal which has not been scrutinised.

A new petition by Belarus Free Theatre seeks to put pressure on the EU and the Belarusian government for the project to be halted. With greater publicity of Tatyana's experiences and those of her colleagues, the international pressure will quickly grow.

In order to help bring those stories to a wider audience, we had decided to make a short video interview with Tatyana, where she could share her thoughts and experiences.

One of the most poignant moments came towards the end, when she was asked what someone watching the video might do to support her campaign.

"I would ask them to believe in the result. Believe in the final aim ... "



Support Tatyana's campaign by signing the petition against the construction of the plant at Ostrovets, which will be delivered to the Belarusian Energy Ministry.

Find out more about Tatyana's experiences on the Belarus Free Theatre website.

Chris Garrard is a campaigner with Belarus Free Theatre, who are company-in-association at the Young Vic theatre. The company's Red Forest campaign emerged from their recent production of the same name, which explores true stories of human rights, environmental degradation and injustice gathered from research around the world.

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