25 Years After Chernobyl, Russia and Belarus Still Don't Get It

While the world witnessed the nuclear meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March and remembered the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in April, a new nuclear power plant set for construction this fall on former Soviet territory raises alarm at how little has been learned.

What set Chernobyl apart from Fukushima more than anything else was the way the closed Soviet regime responded to the disaster, remaining in denial for weeks that a catastrophe was unfolding. The same could occur in Belarus, which is currently ruled by an autocratic leader who falsified his own reelection last December. Belarus and Russia's mishandling of the proposal to build a reactor near Astraviec, a town in western Belarus, is a warning sign the West should not ignore. Again, we see the potential lack of transparency, international coordination, and communication.

Yet the United States did not object when, only weeks ago, Russia's state-owned nuclear power company, Rosatom, signed a deal with Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko. It is still unclear to the governments of neighboring countries what criteria Belarus used in selecting the location of the plant -- a mere 14 miles from Lithuania's border and barely 30 miles from Vilnius, its capital and economic and population hub. Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius and other Lithuanian officials have highlighted the failure of the Belarusian authorities to make a credible attempt to answer safety concerns in required environmental impact statements. "We didn't get proper answers or a proper discussion," noted Kubilius.

Belarus' unwillingness to have meaningful consultations with its neighbors is alarming. These countries, once under the Soviet yoke, now belong to the World Trade Organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. And they are now close American allies. The Obama Administration has stated that they agree with Congress that it is in our and Europe's best long-term interest to increase energy security and diversification. However, the optimal way to add to the region's energy independence is to create new, clean energy sources, not to continue to rely upon the shaky assurances of throwback regimes.

Transparency delivers best solutions. I have long been in favor of safe nuclear power as one component of a diversified strategy that will secure greater energy independence while reducing the fuel costs to American families. Brussels is well advised to pursue a similar goal so that its citizens will one day no longer be dependent on the energy goodwill of the Kremlin, which has proven an unreliable supplier time and time again. Between Astraviec and a reactor already under construction to Lithuania's immediate west in Kaliningrad, Russia again demonstrates its intention to solidify its regional energy monopoly, this time that, if unchecked, will ultimately drive Eastern Europe to again become politically subservient to Moscow-- a grave fate that the West must not allow.

This opaque agreement should have sent off alarms at the State Department. Instead, Foggy Bottom has given Lukashenko, whose beleaguered nation is on the brink of financial ruin, a green light to build his reactor, never mind the acute environmental worries or how this may further entrench Europe's energy dependence on undemocratic suppliers.

Both Secretary Clinton and I will visit Lithuania later this month. It is my hope that she will reconsider this disconcerting approach before arriving in Vilnius, as our Baltic allies deserve better. We should strongly echo Eastern Europe's concern and join the opposition led by Kubilius. We too should protest the international legal framework violations that Belarus and Russia are committing with their plans to build the nuclear power plant in Astraviec, with little to no regard to their next-door neighbor's concerns.

Last December, the U.S. Envoy for Eurasian Energy, Richard Morningstar, called for implementing this project "on a competitive, commercial basis and in full compliance with European and IAEA standards." So far, the planned nuclear power plant in Belarus does not fit the bill. Until its proponents comply with all provisions of the United Nations Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, the Convention on Nuclear Safety of the International Atomic Energy Agency and other international legal acts, the United States and the international community should strongly oppose this endeavor.

In the memory of all those who suffered in the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago, Russia and Belarus must be made to understand: the world is watching.

U.S. Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia.