Prior the launch of Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant (BelNPP) in Astravets, voices from international community have expressed their concerns about the safety of the plant. Being the closest neighbour, Lithuania was one of the most active opponents of the BelNPP, which has resulted in continuous attempts to discredit their concerns. Throughout December, various Russian media outlets were accusing Lithuania of being unreasonable and causing unnecessary panic about the plant being not secure enough. Moreover, there were insinuations that together with European Union, Lithuania is interfering in Belarusian affairs and there is a political reasoning behind their refusal to buy energy from the BelNPP.
The analysis was carried out by Debunk EU with a contribution of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania
The relevance of this research was dictated by the events that occurred at the end of 2020. The physical and power start-up of the first reactor in October 2020, the ‘official opening’ of the BelNPP on November 7th, 2020, and several consequent unplanned stopovers and equipment failure of the plant were accompanied by significant increase of disinformation. Moreover, even observing the general flow of disinformation about the positions and statements of European countries towards the BelNPP, the position of Lithuania and actions receive a special attention by the Russian media, and the new government and its representatives become important targets of lies and insinuation attempts.
Debunk EU team has examined 406 articles (December 2020) in the Russian media, 148 of which contained a disinformative or misleading messages about Lithuania‘s position on the BelNPP.
Analysing the scope of disinformation against the Lithuanian position on the BelNPP the several waves of the increased flow were observed during December 2020. The main triggers were:
Information about the concealed incident at the BelNPP in early autumn appeared on November 30th and resulted in an increase of disinformation on December 3rd.
In order to fix the damage, the reactor was shut down, which has caused the reactions about the situation to appear in media (December 3rd).
The plans of a newly appointed Government of Lithuania for implementation of a total blockade of the BelNPP were declared (December 7th).
Since the Belarusian delegation did not participate in the preparatory meeting, the visit of a delegation of EC and European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) experts to the BelNPP was cancelled (December 15th).
The first and biggest increase of disinformation on December 3rd relates to dissemination of information about the incident at the BelNPP that was announced on November 30th by the independent Belarusian environmental NGO “Ecohome” (“Ekodom”). According to them, in September and October 2020 information from several unrelated sources was obtained that “the tank of the emergency cooling system of the first reactor had been damaged” and the Belarusian government concealed this fact. In addition, the report emphasises that this equipment needs to be replaced following such an accident, but in this case, it would become a clear evidence of the incident, so there were attempts made to repair it on the spot.
After this information has surfaced, on December 1st Lithuanian authorities addressed the Ministry of Emergencies of Belarus with an inquiry for detailed information about the incident. The Ministry of Energy of Belarus then briefly announced that allegedly, only the need for additional adjustments to the operation of the covers of the steam silencers was identified. However, information on the condition of the reactor cooling system was not provided.
Another spike of misleading/false articles coincided with the recommendation for the Lithuanian people to prepare food and other necessary supplies for at least three days in order to avoid a shortage for the critical situation of a possible crisis, issued by the Ministry of the Interior of Lithuania on December 2nd. The very next day, a message appeared that the supposedly planned disconnection of the first power unit from the power system was executed, and the reactor of the Plant was shut down. All systems and equipment were tested for approx. 10 days. In the context of these events and public statements, a couple of highly emphasised messages emerged in the pro-Kremlin media that:
Lithuania is allegedly sowing panic about the BelNPP insecurity,
Lithuania is unreasonably opposing the BelNPP.
In the case of the first message, a lot of attention was paid to the recommendation of the Ministry of the Interior, which was interpreted ironically. The supposedly hysterical position of Lithuania towards the BelNPP and its allegedly inadequate comparison with the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear disasters was also mocked. The second message was repeated in various ways in the context of the disclosure of information about the aforementioned incident.
Another wave of intensification of disinformation, albeit a smaller one, coincided with the information on the plans of the newly appointed Government of Lithuania about the BelNPP and BRELL energy ring issues on December 7th. In response, the pro-Kremlin media provided their own assessment of the Government of Lithuania plans in the energy sector a couple of days later.
The main narratives that were escalated:
Lithuania unreasonably opposes BelNPP,
Lithuania interferes in the internal affairs of Belarus,
Lithuania sowing panic about the BelNPP insecurity, and
Baltic states will be forced to buy electricity from BelNPP.
Noteworthy, this time the information was disseminated through regional websites that do not have such a large audience as the mainstream media. However, the overall reach increased due to a few articles published by the large media channels such as lenta.ru or ria.ru.
One more surge of disinformation happened in mid-December. It dealt with the EU summit calling on the European Commission (EC) to prevent commercial electricity imports from unsafe nuclear power plants, and the cancellation of the visit of a delegation of EC and European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) experts to the BelNPP due to the refusal of the Belarusian side to cooperate in organising a physical visit to the BelNPP was announced.
On December 15th, in response to the situation, a message was disseminated that the Belarusian side allegedly did not understand why the visit was cancelled and is ready to accept European experts if they change their mind. Thus, without answering the question of why Belarus did not attend the preparatory meeting, the aim was to create a perception that the failure of the visit was due to the fault of the Europeans and not the Belarusians. It is worth mentioning that this also led to a newly emerged message saying that “the EU’s blockade of the BelNPP is politicised”.
NOTE: the total number of articles depicted in the chart is 303 – most of the articles were assigned to several narratives or messages.
It is interesting, that on December 14th a publication of one of the most prominent Russian agencies, Tass.ru, appeared and emphasised the openness of the Belarusian side, with an included note that the EC Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson allegedly acknowledged that official Minsk since 2018 has cooperated and provided the necessary information to the EU on the safety of the BelNPP. Despite this message, there were no hints of this comment in neither the Commissioner's speech nor the interviews on this issue.
While carrying out this analysis, Debunk EU experts have noticed a trend or repetition that is worth mentioning: in various Sputnik websites, almost a third of the articles on the dispute between Lithuania and Belarus over the BelNPP had a similar paragraph attached which disseminated three different messages:
The safety of the BelNPP has been verified by many international experts,
Despite the pressure of Lithuania, Latvia does not refuse to buy electricity from Russia, so the efforts of Lithuania to prevent electricity from the BelNPP from entering the EU have failed,
Lithuania interferes in the internal affairs of Belarus, exerting public pressure and undermining the international image of Belarus.
It was also noticed that in several texts about the alleged failures of Lithuania to ensure energy independence by disconnecting from the BRELL network, the message that the NordBalt connection is unreliable and permanently facing interruptions was repeated several times. A power outage in Riga which occurred in June last year was given as an example, although it had nothing to do with the NordBalt connection built between Klaipėda, Lithuania and Nybro, in Sweden.