Will Belarus Build its Nuclear Plant?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 49

Over the past three years, there have been numerous discussions about the future Belarusian nuclear power station. Various sites have been studied and canvassed and in December 2008, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced that the station would be located in the Astravets district of Hrodna region, some ten miles from the Lithuanian border (EDM, April 20, 2009). However, there are increasing signs, not only that the station will be well behind the planned schedule of completion for the first two reactors (in 2016 and 2018 respectively), but also that it may not be built at all. The confusing reports stem from contradictory signals by the main partners, Belarus and Russia, and particularly from comments made by the Belarusian president.

Last May, Belarus and Russia signed a document on cooperation between the two countries on the peaceful uses of atomic energy. At this time, they agreed to work together to complete the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant. Belarusian Deputy Energy Minister, Mikalay Mikhalyuk, reported that an official agreement would be signed by the end of the first quarter of 2010 (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, February 9). Last December, a government commission resolved the question of location, stipulating that the plant would be built near the village of Mikhalishki, 12 miles from Astravets, and that when completed, the station would provide up to 30 percent of Belarus’ electricity output (Belapan, March 5).

In some respects, matters appear to be proceeding normally. For example, at a workshop for government officials held in Minsk on February 9, Director of the Department of Nuclear Energy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Jong Kyun Park, declared that he and his colleagues were ready to assist the Belarusians to build a plant that would reach 2.4 megawatts in capacity (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, February 9). Belarus must now hold discussions about the environmental feasibility of the plant with neighboring countries and Austria, with key talks taking place with the governments of Lithuania and Ukraine, according to Belarusian First Deputy Minister of Environmental Protection, Vital Kulik, in early March (Belapan, March 5).

However, in other respects, total confusion reigns. Noisy demonstrators interrupted talks on the potential environmental impact of the station in Vilnius (www.naviny.by, March 5). Critics note that the Neris River will provide the water supply for the station, which will likely lead to contamination of its waters, thereby threatening the extinction of the river’s salmon. They also highlighted that there is no immediate provision for a recycling plant for the reactors’ nuclear waste, meaning that the burial of radioactive products will take place very close to the Lithuanian border. Opponents of the plant’s construction in Belarus are thus placing their hopes on Lithuania to highlight these potential problems at future meetings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (The Baltic Course, March 7).

However, it is the partnership with Russia that elicits the most intriguing questions. In late February, Russian government officials attended the ceremonial laying of the first public stone of the Baltic nuclear power plant in Kaliningrad. Moscow is to provide financing for 49 percent of this station, with the rest open to foreign capital. Germany has reportedly expressed interest in becoming an investor. The timetable for the completion of this structure is identical to that proposed for the Astravets station, (completion of the first reactor by 2016 and the second by 2018) (Bellona, March 1). The difference is that construction work is already under way in Kaliningrad, which raises the question as to whether Moscow would be prepared to invest in a second, foreign station, when a domestic one will be completed just as quickly.

On February 25, Mikhalyuk stated that preparatory work on Astravets would entail the expenditure of 350 billion Belarusian rubles ($119 million). The first houses for workers have been built and a road and railway are under construction. The Belarusians are dependent on support from Russia for this infrastructure, but nothing has been forthcoming from Moscow. No contract has been signed with Atomstroieksport, the anticipated Russian builder. Moreover, Aleksandr Surikov, the Russian Ambassador to Belarus, stated that his country was prepared to pay only for buildings at the plant site itself. Everything else must be covered by Minsk (Belarusy i Rynok, March 1).

His apparent reticence becomes more readily understandable if one recalls comments made by Lukashenka in late December 2009. The Belarusian president noted that construction of the Astravets plant was hardly in the financial interests of Europe and perhaps not for the Russians either. Instead, “[our] competitors are ready to pay us not to construct it and purchase their energy instead” (Belorusy i Rynok, March 1). Could the station then be simply a ruse to gain more loans from Russia, and possibly from Lithuania, which is another likely recipient of nuclear-generated electricity from Kaliningrad? Lukashenka has often demonstrated such wiles in the past, but given the time and expense already invested in Astravets, this would be a major ruse indeed.

Whatever his possible machinations, the fact is that the project is behind schedule, of secondary interest to the main partner, builder, and financier Russia, and raises significant questions and concerns in Lithuania, as well as among the anti-nuclear community in Belarus. Evidently, the community in Astravets would welcome the plethora of new jobs at the plant site, but, who is going to pay them? As yet there are no clear answers.