Thursday August 25, 2005

Nuclear waste row leaves bad smell in Lithuania

Tom Parfitt in Moscow

The Guardian

A bizarre diplomatic skirmish has broken out after Belarus retaliated against Lithuania's decision to build a radioactive waste dump close to their shared border by announcing plans to put two giant pig farms in sniffing distance of its neighbour.

The spat on the fringe of the European Union started when officials in Vilnius confirmed it would build the storage facility about 700 metres from the Belarussian border.

Minsk complained that it had not been consulted and the facility would threaten its nearby Braslavsky lakes national park.

Now it has retaliated with a project of its own: two farm complexes for a total of 216,000 pigs close to Lithuania's southern border, one beside a river that runs straight into the Baltic country.

The plans were leaked to newspapers by the Belarussian agriculture ministry.

The Lithuanian prime minister, Algirdas Brazauskas, condemned the plans in a radio interview this week, saying: "Construction of a pig complex in the Neman river basin would be a barbarous act."

Waste could flow down the river to a popular spa resort at Druskininkai in south-west Lithuania, officials in Vilnius believe.

The foreign minister, Antanas Valionis, said that the "significant increase in pollution of Lithuanian rivers" could prompt sanctions against Belarus.

Officially, Minsk denies the pig farms plan is linked to its displeasure over the dry storage facility, to be used for material from Lithuania's Ignalina nuclear power station, which is to be decommissioned by 2009.

But Ivan Kasyanenko, head of Belarus's Braslavsky lakes national park, a tourist attraction and a haven for rare birds such as bittern and osprey, said the plans were mooted to satisfy popular anger.

Natalya Golovko, of the ministry of natural resources and environmental protection in Minsk, said the plans for a 100,000 cubic metre radioactive storage facility threatened to have an "ecological, social and psychological" impact on Belarus, still traumatised by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

The accident at the nuclear plant took place in Ukraine, but the brunt of the fallout was taken by Belarus and incidence of thyroid cancer remains high.

Lithuania denies the plant will be dangerous. Mr Brazauskas stressed that the radioactive storage facility would be a "dry" one for discarded materials, not nuclear fuel.

Mrs Golovko said Belarus had sent several letters to its neighbour requesting details about the plans but received insufficient information.

The Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko, often dubbed Europe's last dictator, has reportedly condemned the Ignalina nuclear waste project as "inadmissible".

A spokesman for the Lithuanian foreign ministry confirmed that Vilnius was seeking clarification from Minsk about the pig farm plans. Pollution of the Neman river "could damage international river tourism projects."