1. Belarus built the plant to reduce its energy dependence on Russia
  2. The nuclear plant is being built by Russia’s state-owned nuclear company
  3. Lithuania adamantly opposes the power plant

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, will journey to Belarus, the landlocked former Soviet republic, in late February to determine the safety and preparedness of a nuclear power station under construction in the town of Astravets near the border of Lithuania.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko agreed to build a nuclear power plant as far back as 2008 in order to reduce the country’s energy dependence on Russia. Belarus relies on its giant neighbor to the east for 90% of its gas needs.

The Astravets plant is being constructed by Russian firms contracted by Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear energy company. Moscow is also partly financing the nuclear plant – with cost estimates ranging as high as $22 billion.

Belarus expects to have two 1.2 gigawatt reactors online this year.

But the construction site has witnessed a number of accidents and mishaps, raising fears of Soviet-style secrecy and coverups.

In July 2016, a 330-ton nuclear reactor shell had been dropped by workers from a height of about 13 feet while being moved at the site. The Belarusian Energy Ministry did not confirm the accident until two weeks later.

"Everybody knew about [the accident], or almost everybody, but no one dared reveal it publicly," said opposition lawmaker Mikalay Ulasevich. "They'd be putting themselves in the firing line."

Belarus’ neighbor to the northeast Lithuania has been worried about the reactor since it was first announced in 2008. Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is located only 31 miles from the construction site. (After the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011, IAEA recommended that nuclear plants should not be built within 62 miles of major population centers.)

Lithuanian officials dread the opening of the nuclear plant in Belarus.

"This is a threat to our national security, public health, and environment," said Lithuanian Energy Minister Zygimantas Vaiciunas. "The key question is the site selection, which was done politically -- geopolitically."

Of course, the April 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine – about 370 miles to the southeast of Astravets – remains a sobering and terrifying memory in the region.

"The lessons that were given 30 years ago in Chernobyl have not been learned," Vaiciunas added.

Lithuania also alleges that Belarus has not completed a risk-and-safety assessment of the plant's ability to sustain damage from accidents.

Lithuania itself had a Soviet-built nuclear reactor in the early 1980s. That site was closed as a precondition to Lithuania entering the EU in 2004.

In a 2017, the Council of Europe asked Belarus to suspend construction of the nuclear plant, citing a "lack of respect for international standards for nuclear safety" and "major incidents during the construction of this plant." (Belarus is not a member of the EU)

"Safety depends not only on the design -- it depends also on the site," said Darius Lukauskas, deputy head for radiation safety at Lithuania's nuclear energy regulator. "You have to answer three questions: where the plant is, what kind of facility it is, and how it is constructed."

The region is also vulnerable to seismic activity.

However, supporters of the Belarus plant assert that nuclear reactor design has advanced tremendously since Chernobyl with a greater focus on accident prevention.

Astravets will run third-generation pressurized-water reactors that are very different from those used in Chernobyl or even Fukushima.

Belarus officials also deny that the plant was built near the Lithuanian border as a means for Russia to monitor or intimidate Lithuanians. Nor do they accept Lithuania’s suspicions that the Kremlin is seeking to increase sale of its hydrocarbons to the EU.

"Any talk of Belarus building a nuclear plant here to spite or harm someone -- be it Lithuania, the EU, or anyone else -- is wrong, and has always been," said Eduard Svirid, a spokesman for the nuclear plant.

Svirid also said seismic activity in the area was minimal.

In response to reports of journalists, photographers and opposition politicians being subject to detention and interrogations if they venture too close to the plant site, Svirid countered that such measures were necessary to prevent acts of terrorism.

Rosatom also said it is committed to transparency and that "it is practically impossible to conceal any event on the site, as key works are being regularly inspected by watchdogs."

"We are committed to the highest standards of transparency and have always provided the national regulator, international watchdogs, and all other stakeholders with any and all information they require on the design and progress of the project," Rosatom added.

Yekaterina Rechits, an analyst with the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Research, noted that the Belarusian nuclear power plant will help ease climate concerns.

“It is not just an energy project. It is an environmental one, which allows resolving the problems of climate, greenhouse gas emissions not only in Belarus but Europe as well,” she said. “Many countries of the European Union are ranked lower [than Belarus in emissions]. Those are, for instance, [Czech Republic], Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Poland.”

Meanwhile, Lithuania is preparing for the worst.

The government has purchased $1 million in iodine tablets in case of a radiation leak. It is also conducting drills to test the preparedness of its people to cope with a nuclear disaster.

"It depends on the speed of the wind, [but] we could have only a couple of hours after a [radiation] release to make decisions -- for example, to evacuate," said Lukauskas. "And until the release reaches the Lithuanian border."

Vytautas Landsbergis, honorary chairman of the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrat party, has called for the atomic plant to be built elsewhere.

"The demand could be very simple: the place should be different,” he said. “This place [for the nuclear plant] is impermissible; it should be at least [62 miles] from large residential areas. So it's an impermissible thing in the first place but it was allowed as those who did that ignored everything.”

Zygimantas Pavilionis, a Lithuanian politician, wants the EU to get involved.

"We want the EU to hear our position, for it to accept our position as theirs and to ban the purchase of electricity from this unsafe power plant," Pavilionis said.

Political scientist Raimundas Lopata believes the nuclear facility can still be stopped.

"There's a prevailing opinion in government circles that Astravets has been built already and nothing can be done. The claim that Astravets has been built already is fundamentally wrong. The fact is that only a quarter of it has been constructed, and the Russians plan to build another three plants]," Lopata said.