Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 4

The Belarusian government has now selected the official site for a new nuclear power station in Belarus. It has also designated a general planning operation for the plant and may be close to a decision on which company will design the reactor. The information gleaned suggests that the year 2008 may see the first steps toward constructing the new station, which is to be based on two water-pressurized reactors. Yet many questions and contradictions abound.

In early January, Kseniya Avimova, a journalist for the newspaper Belorusy i rynok, noted that two potential sites had been investigated: one near the village of Krasnaya Palyana and the other close to the village of Kukshynava; both are located in Mahileu region not far from the Russian border. Preparatory work on assessing the latter site was scheduled to start in the spring of 2007, but began only in September. Subsequently, Promatomnadzor (Industrial Atomic Inspection) of Belarus reported that there were problems with the quality of the ground conditions at Krasnaya Palyana. RIA-Novosti subsequently reported that the station would be built at Kukshynava.

These somewhat nebulous statements received some clarification through a report issued by Naviny, which noted that research conducted on the sites revealed that the land at the Krasnaya Palyana site had been contaminated by radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The implication was that the level of contamination precluded building a nuclear plant in this location, and the site appears to have been abandoned.

Kukshynava is a small village consisting of 28 houses, half of which are uninhabited. Of the 28 residents, 26 are reportedly elderly. The nearest population centers are Orsha (20 miles), Mahileu (30 miles), and Shklou, the native village of President Alexander Lukashenka (21 miles). Few villagers wish to move, but they may have no choice. Excavation work is continuing at a rapid pace and is anticipated to be completed by March 2008.

The next key question is who will build the projected two 1,000-megawatt reactors, since Belarus has little native expertise. Unlike Russia, the country does not even have an independent ministry dealing with nuclear energy. A Department of Nuclear and Radiation Security has belatedly been created within the Ministry of Extraordinary Situations. It has been evident from the outset that the construction tender for the new plant will be offered to companies from different countries, and the three competitors cited are Russia, France, and the United States. More specifically, the potential bidders from the latter two countries are said to be multinational corporations: the Franco-German consortium Areva/Siemens and the U.S.-Japanese Toshiba/Westinghouse Electric group.

However, neither the Franco-German nor the U.S.-Japanese consortia have actually offered to construct the reactors. Given the current hostile relations between the United States and Belarus (on December 30 Lukashenka threatened to expel the U.S. ambassador if further sanctions were applied on his country), it seems unlikely that U.S.-constructed reactors would even be feasible. As for Areva/Siemens as a prospective partner, the costs of the project likely would be prohibitive. The Belarusian authorities have acknowledged that they will have to borrow money to build the station. Under such circumstances a partnership with the Russians – who build “less expensive but equally reliable reactors” compared with the French, according to one government source – would more logical.

As for Moscow, a government source informed journalists last December, prior to the meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Union State in Moscow, that Russia would accept any request to build the new reactors for Belarus if one were to be offered. Such construction, it was projected, would greatly improve trading relations between the two states, which currently is operating somewhat “inefficiently.”

However, soliciting Russian assistance seems to contradict the very reasons for building the new plant at Kukshynava. President Lukashenka commented last October that “Energy has been turned from a purely economic issue into a political one,” and therefore it was necessary to construct the nuclear plant at a cost of $2.8 billion, with a completion date somewhere between 2012 and 2016. Belarus, in other words, has been too reliant on Russian gas supplies from the monopolist company Gazprom. But would dependence on Russia for building and providing fuel for new reactors and offering further loans or credits on top of the recently granted $1.5 billion loan (December 2007) resolve that problem?

Such reasoning makes little sense. Presumably once on line and operational, the station might ease reliance on Russian energy, but all critical aspects concerned with completing the work as well as the supply of fuel, and perhaps even safety maintenance, would be in Russian hands. In addition, the question of whether Belarus should lift the moratorium on building a domestic nuclear station, which expired in 2008, has never been subjected to public discussion. At the least, the issue merits a national referendum, especially given the tragic health consequences engendered by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the country.

Nuclear power appears a viable option today in many post-Soviet states, but in few of them is the tempo for construction likely to be so hasty. The Belarusian government has ignored popular concerns in the interests of what it considers a national priority.

(Belorusy i rynok, January 8-15; RIA-Novosti, Naviny, January 9; RosBusiness Consulting, December 26, 2006; BBC News, October 11, 2006)