On February 23, Belarus’ Minister of Energy, Alyaksandr Azyarets announced the signing of the basic contract for the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power station in Astravets district (Hrodna region). Earlier that month, Belarus’ Belvneshnekonombank and Russia’s Vneshekonombank signed a bilateral agreement that provides the country with a $10 billion Russian loan payable over 25 years to cover 90 percent of the costs of building the station (telegraf.by, February 23). The contract is the latest development in the protracted project, the goal of which is to ease Belarus’ dependence on energy imports, and particularly gas and oil from Russia. The project, however, remains deeply controversial and there are conflicting accounts concerning its viability and potential energy savings.
From the perspective of the Belarusian government, Astravets will be a significant asset. On February 17, Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka met his First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka, who reported on progress at the site. He informed the president of the signing of a design project agreement with Atomstroyeksport, a branch organ of Rosatom, Russia’s federal nuclear energy agency. Earthworks are to be finished by mid-2013 with foundation concrete to be poured by September next year. Syamashka had earlier met with Sergey Kiriyenko, the CEO of Rosatom, and received confirmation that the costs of building the Atsravets station would not be higher than those of the station under construction in Kaliningrad region. Two reactors are to be built with a total capacity of 2,400 megawatts, with a timetable for operation of 2017 and 2018, respectively (Naviny.by, February 19). Information provided by Deputy Chief Engineer of the plant’s construction directorate, Uladzimir Horin, states that the initial workers at Astravets will be engineers from current Russian and Ukrainian nuclear power plants, and Belarusian university students will get basic training at operating Russian reactors (tvr.by, February 22).
In a policy brief, Mykhaylo Salnykov of the Belarusian Economic Research Center discusses the economic rationale for the Astravets plant. He writes that when it is fully operational, it “could provide for the entire baseload demand of electricity in Belarus.” The new station will also reduce the portion of natural gas in the heat and power generating sector from 91 percent to around 50 percent. Salnykov acknowledges there are some potential drawbacks, not least that the nuclear fuel is likely to come from Russia. He thinks nonetheless that by the time the station comes on line, Belarusian relations with the West will have improved and thus there could be alternative sources for importing uranium (BEROC, Oct 2011). Conceivably, however, the uranium could also come from Kazakhstan, the world’s largest producer and an economic partner of Belarus.
Salnykov also raises perhaps the most critical factors relating to the Astravets project, namely its environmental impact and the population’s fear of nuclear power, one of the legacies of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Linked to these issues is an unusual spate of reactor building in the region that will have a significant impact not only on Belarus, but also, and particularly, on its neighbor Lithuania. Both Astravets and the Kaliningrad plant are located within 60 kilometers of Vilnius, and the former will use for its main water supply the Neris River, the same source used by the Lithuanian capital. Lithuania, moreover, is building its own nuclear plant at Visaginas as a replacement for its Ignalina station, based on Russian-made RBMK-1500 reactors, which closed at the end of 2009. Decommissioning of Ignalina will not be completed until 2030. GE Hitachi is responsible for the building of Visaginas, unit one of which (1350 MW) is anticipated to be in operation by 2020 and will export electricity to Poland, Latvia and Estonia, as well catering to domestic needs. The site is adjacent to that of Ignalina, close to the border with Belarus and Latvia (world-nuclear.org, Dec 2011).
The Lithuanian plant is an EU-backed project. Kaliningrad and Astravets are Russian projects, part of a new expansion of the industry that also encompasses two new reactors at the Sosnovyi Bor plant near St. Petersburg, Russia’s original RBMK station, which has also prolonged the life of its older RBMKs that predated those at Chernobyl. The implications are clear. The Belarusian station forms part of a complex of new reactors in northwest Europe that will change fundamentally the energy structure of the region. Opponents of Astravets therefore raise a logical question: would it not be more expedient for Belarus to purchase its electricity from Kaliningrad or Visaginas than to dig itself into further financial problems by having Russia construct reactors on its territory? Is it wise to remain so dependent on Russia?
That question has not escaped Lukashenka, who has made a series of seemingly off-the-cuff remarks about engaging new partners. On February 20, he accepted the credentials of the new Japanese ambassador to Belarus, Tikahito Harada, and invited Japan to construct a nuclear plant in Belarus, adding that the accident at the Fukushima-Daiichi station in March 2011 should not be an impediment to the cooperation of the two countries in the sphere of nuclear energy. “You must build us a beautiful, good, nuclear power station,” he added, noting that the Japanese had significant expertise in the area. Lukashenka commented that after Chernobyl, the Japanese had been among the first to come to the aid of Belarus, now the time had come for a return of favors. Fukushima should not deter the two sides from pursuing the exploitation of the “peaceful atom” (Belarus.regnum.ru, Feb 20).
Lukashenka has already invited the Chinese to take part in the building of a new nuclear power plant in Minsk. Earlier China’s Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation had advanced a proposal to build the plant now scheduled at Astravets before the contract was given to the Russian company. The two countries have also agreed to build a “Nuclear Industrial Park,” using 80 square kilometers of land close to Smalyavichy, a village located about 35 miles from Minsk, for the sale of household goods, biomedical equipment, and electronics (world-nuclear.org, February 2012; enformable.com, Feb 20; Belarusian Telegraph Agency, Dec 8). Where would the “Minsk plant” be located? Logic would suggest the site of the aborted nuclear power and heating station, located between Minsk and its international airport, abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster.
The Belarusian authorities seem to have adopted nuclear power as the ready solution to the country’s energy problems, but it seems a path fraught with perils: financial, environmental, and potential safety problems. In the wake of the Japanese disaster, when some states, led by Germany, seem to have abandoned nuclear energy, the Belarusian leadership has embraced it as a panacea, but without any of the prerequisites that should accompany such projects: expertise, environmental safety, fuel, finances, and popular support.