December 14, 2017 / 12:41 PM / in 2 months

Baltics to cooperate on Belarus nuclear power tax

* Belarus nuclear plant near Vilnius seen as safety risk

* Lithuania wants Baltic boycott of Belarus nuclear power

* Says fellow Baltic countries agree to a tax on Belarus power

* Lithuania imports 77 percent of its power, third of imports come from Russia and Belarus

VILNIUS, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Lithuania is seeking regional action to tax or block all electricity imports from Belarus, where Russia is building a nuclear plant close to the border and Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Lithuania sees the Astravets power plant as a threat not only to its safety but also national security. Belarus has denied the plant has any safety issues.

Despite relying on imports for 77 percent of its electricity since closing down its own old Soviet-built nuclear power plant in 2009, Lithuania plans to cut off high-power cables linking it with Astravets.

Earlier this year it passed laws prohibiting the purchase of Belarus energy after the power plant gets going next year. Data from November showed Lithuania relied on Russia and Belarus for 31 percent of its electricity imports.

Lithuania has not yet been able to persuade its neighbours to sign up for the boycott, but they have agreed to tax imports, Lithuania’s energy minister Zygimantas Vaiciunas said.

“At this stage we have an agreement in the region that, if energy from Belarus gets imported, it would need to be slapped with an infrastructure tax,” Vaiciunas said.

“This will make energy from the nuclear power plant less competitive on our markets,” he added.

Belarus expects to have the first of two 1.2 gigawatt VVER 1200 reactors for the Astravets nuclear power station online next year, according to the plant’s website. The plant aims to provide a third of Belarus’s energy needs by 2020, when the second reactor goes online, the website says.

“Achieving the common position on whether to buy or not to buy (electricity from Astravets) is important for us,” Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis told Reuters.

Estonia too backed an import tax.

“Electricity produced outside the EU has lower environmental and safety standards and thus has an unfair competitive advantage over power produced within the EU,” Estonian Economy and Communications Ministry spokesman Rasmus Ruuda said.

“A step towards a fairer electricity market could be to introduce a levy for electricity from third countries”.

WIDER CONCERNS

Lithuania has been opposed to the building of the Astravets power plant from the beginning. It is being constructed by Russia’s Atomstroyexport and financed by Moscow with a 10 billion dollar loan.

Lithuania says Astravets, which is also known as Ostrovets in Belarus, does not meet safety standards, pointing to a number of accidents at the site and a lack of independent oversight.

“We are worried that Belarus did not produce research into the safety of the plant’s location, and we are worried by the lack of an independent nuclear regulator in Belarus to ensure the plant’s safe operation,” Vaiciunas said.

Any restrictions on Belarus energy would be felt by Russia, whose electricity grid is connected with Belarus and the Baltics.

Lithuania is building fourteen metering stations along its border with Belarus to measure levels of radiation.

The government estimates that radioactive contamination from the nuclear plant could reach Vilnius within an hour of an accident. Vilnius is less than 50 kilometres away and has a population of more than half a million.

The government also plans to start monitoring radiation in the river Neris, which flows near the power plant. The river then flows through Vilnius and could contaminate its drinking water in the event of an accident, the government said.

The Baltics have been struggling to reduce their dependence on the Russian power grid. They hope to switch their reliance on the Moscow-run grid to that in the continental European Union via Poland by 2025, at the latest.

Lithuania thinks Belarus and possibly Russian military will be moved in to protect the power plant, creating a new base on its border.

“We think the power plant is motivated by geopolitics, rather than economic considerations. It is obvious that it won’t pay for itself and will need to be subsidised by either Russia or Belarus,” Vaiciunas said. (Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, Gederts Gelzis in Riga and David Mardiste in Tallinn; Writing by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Geert De Clercq and Elaine Hardcastle)

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