Belarus, the Soviet republic most heavily affected by fallout from the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, has decided to develop its own nuclear power industry.
On December 1, Mikhail Myasnikovich, chairman of the National Academy of Sciences, made the announcement at a meeting concerning the improvement of energy security in the country attended by President Alexander Lukashenka. In a subsequent speech, Lukashenka remarked that nuclear power is clearly the best alternative for Belarus to eradicate itself from a complex predicament in energy resources. About 85% of all its energy needs are based on imports; and since his recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenka believes that there will soon be a deficiency in hydrocarbon supplies in Russia that could have an adverse impact on the Belarusian economy. Though there are several possible solutions to such energy dependency (including a price rise for imported Russian gas in 2007), the decision to turn to nuclear power was accepted unanimously by meeting participants, and the president requested that the government’s proposal be forwarded to the Security Council.
The original plan was drafted last May and has been widely circulated. The station is to be a VVER-1000 plant, based initially on two reactors that will either be of Russian or French design. The first reactor is anticipated to be on line by 2015, but could be in service as early as 2013, if workers adhere to the timetable suggested by the president. Each 1,000-megawatt reactor will cost a reported $1.3-$1.7 billion, a figure that likely excludes the costs of decommissioning and burial of radioactive waste. Technical supervision will be in the hands of the United Institute of Energy and Nuclear Research of the National Academy of Sciences, and preparatory work is occurring in cooperation with international organizations, headed by the IAEA.
By commissioning the two reactors, Belarus could cut its reliance on Russian energy by 24%. In turn the share of nuclear power in the energy balance of the country could increase to 20%, with natural gas falling to 50% within the next 15 years, if the project runs on schedule. By the middle of the 21st century, the proportion of nuclear energy could conceivably be 85%, which would be among the highest in the world.
A widespread debate has taken place over the past few years as to the likely whereabouts of such a station. Evidently there were several possible sites, but the actual choice is the same as projected several years ago, before a 10-year moratorium on commissioning nuclear reactors went into operation in 1998. The decision could hardly be more controversial: Krasnapol’le in Chavusy region, Mahileu oblast. The location is 40 miles southeast of the city of Mahileu and 60 miles from the Russian border. It is also this same distance from the village of Shklou, in which Lukashenka was raised. More significant, it is in a swathe of territory known to be contaminated with radioactive cesium in the soil at a level of more than 1 curie per square kilometer. An independent NGO, the Belarusian Charitable Fund “For the Children of Chernobyl,” has focused on health problems in this area for the past 20 years, sending hundreds of children for periods of recuperation to Europe and North America. The incidence of thyroid gland cancer among young people has risen more than 25 times since the accident in the republic as a whole.
Lukashenka dismisses such concerns as a product of “radiophobia and the post-Chernobyl syndrome.” However, the opposition to nuclear power in the republic is undeniable. In early November, according to a poll conducted by the Vilnius-based NISEPI, only 32.5% of those surveyed supported the idea of a domestic nuclear power industry, 47.7% were opposed, and 14.5% were undecided on the issue. The president maintains that it will be possible to use propaganda to convince Belarusians that their fears are unjustified, and he made began by describing the reliance of various countries on nuclear power, led by France. He noted that 60 new nuclear reactors are currently being commissioned worldwide, which will add to the 442 already in operation. Belarus, he added, is “surrounded” by Russian and Ukrainian reactors — for some reason he omitted the Ignalina station in Lithuania. Thus, he states, it is illogical for the population to object to his latest scheme.
Anti-nuclear sentiment has a lengthy history in Belarus, where a nuclear power and heating plant not far from today’s Minsk-2 international airport was abandoned after the Chernobyl accident. Demonstrations against nuclear power led directly to the establishment of the Belarusian Popular Front, Belarus’s main opposition movement between 1989 and 1993. For Lukashenka, Chernobyl-related protests are a refuge and priority of the opposition and his government has insisted that the contaminated land can be returned to cultivation. The announcement of the new station is an indicator both of the government’s desperation to reduce its reliance on imports of Russian gas for its energy needs and an indicator of the dearth of real options.
(Belaruskaya delovaya gazeta, Belorusskie novosti, Charter 97, December 1; Belorusskoe telegrafnoe agenstvo, December 1, 4; RIA-Novosti, December 5; http://bbfchernobyl.iatp.by/)