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Belarus in Focus 2011

9 Nov

Hanna Vasilevich, Belarusian Review, vol. 23, no. 2. (Belarus)

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Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant, Russian Interests and Lithuanian Protests

Construction of a nuclear plant in this region is very controversial, due to both internal and external politics. External circumstances include open confrontation with Lithuania, which has very similar plans and ambitions in building a similar NPP. Lithuanian aspirations in the sphere of nuclear energy will significantly be weakened and the project would be lost if Belarus builds the plant next to its border. One of the concerns of external observers is also Russian participation in plant construction. This is seen as a spread of Russian influence and an attempt to tie Baltic countries closer to Russia via energy dependency. If Belarus chooses Astraviec as the location of its plant, the Belarusian plant will fill the existing energy niche in the region and Lithuanians will not be able to find any investor interested in building a similar project in such close proximity.

The recent explosion in Fukushima opens the security question for a closer look, especially taking into consideration both the claims of insufficient scientific clearance for such construction and Belarus’ tragic experience with the consequences of Chornobyl. Security concerns relate to both the external and internal situation. The year 2011 is the 25th anniversary of Chornobyl, re-opening illhealed wounds. However, the recent worsening of the economic situation in Belarus highlights the necessity of having its own plant to meet the internal needs of the country’s economy. But there are two sides even in the understanding of this need: some believe that the NPP will unleash Belarus from dependence on Russia for energy, while others suggest that having Russia as the sole investor would only bring Belarus closer to its big neighbour and push it into long-term debt.

The pros and cons

As part of the Soviet Union, Belarus suffered the most from the Chornobyl disaster, receiving 75 per cent of all radioactive fallout on its territory and thus having up to 25 per cent of its agricultural lands removed from use for the last 25 years. Belarus still suffers the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster. Twenty-five years of consequences from Chornobyl have cost Belarus an estimated 235 billion dollars. Recent analysis has also shown that it is still too early even to try to return the contaminated land into use since “this land represents the threat for long years, it should not be worked up, to avoid the hot parts lifting into the air and worsening human health” Jury Varoniežcaŭ, PhD says.

Even after 25 years, the Chornobyl wound is not healed; it remains open and dirty. Belarusians are threatened by the consequences of the Chornobyl NPP disaster and have an annual rally called “The Chornobyl Way”. The idea to build a new nuclear power plant also seems threatening. However, the Belarusian government has different plans in mind. Not only trying to return contaminated lands into use (despite numerous statements of scientists who voiced their opinions against these practices), the government is also planning a new plant with Russian investment. Lacking natural resources, Belarus is significantly dependent on Russia for energy. Now that Belarus has lost the special treatment that it had enjoyed for the last 10 years, the market prices that Russia offers to Belarus are unbearable for the Belarusian economy, hitting Belarusian industries hard. The new power plant would thus bring some measure of energy independence, not only supplying the whole country, but also having a reserve for exports that could be directed to the Baltic States as well as to Poland. The plan is for the first reactor to cover the needs of Belarus, while energy from the second one could be focused on export to neighbouring countries.

The former head of the Belarusian parliament Stanislaŭ Šuškievič supports the idea of building a power plant, understanding the needs and benefits of having it. However, Šuškievič worries about the provider in building and about methods which do not include the positions and consultations with leading Belarusian scientists in the field of nuclear energy and proper research on the location of the future plant. Šuškievič is more suspicious of Russia’s motives as the main investor in such a strategic construction than of the recent tragedy in Fukushima. While the tragedy in Fukushima is seen as the result of a natural disaster after performing perfectly for the last 40 years, the Russian role in the Belarusian NPP construction seems for Šuškievič to be tricky by trying to strengthen its position in the region.

Šuškievič expressed his fear that though Belarus desperately needs to become energy independent, this construction would not unleash the country, but on contrary, tie it even closer to Russia. “Though, to my mind, the main bonus in this project is the political one. Russia will control Belarus even stronger than it has been before,” says Šuškievič.

Russia in turn tries to calm the situation down by promising that the project will be joined and beneficial for both sides. As the head of Rosatom, Sergey Kirienko assured that “we [Rosatom] build in Belarus like we build in Russia – in this case it is not a commercial trade, but a principle of an open cost account, as we build it in our country.”

With a signed intergovernmental agreement, the next steps are planned for May (contract agreement) and June (credit agreement) with construction of the ditch for the foundation of the NPP planned for September 2011.

As the plan slowly turns into reality, on the 25th anniversary of the Chornobyl tragedy, around 500 people arranged a meeting which adopted three resolutions. One of them calls for prohibition of the NPP building in Belarus. Members of the rally expressed their belief that Belarus should withdraw from building the NPP, taking into consideration its extreme danger for a population that has already suffered from the Chornobyl disaster. Participants expressed strong concern over the security of the plant, equating the potential threat with the recent tragedy in Fukushima and in Chornobyl. However, it is unlikely that this initiative was even noticed by the authorities and that these activities will be seen as something sustainable beyond the one-time endeavour and having an impact on any considerable part of Belarusian society.

The security threat is also a concern of Belarus’ neighbour Lithuania. A Belarusian nuclear power plant presents a two-fold threat to Lithuania. On one hand, the security question cannot be denied, but on the other hand, Lithuania would lose a lot if Belarus finishes its NPP construction. Lithuania has similar plans to build its own NPP near the former Ignalina NPP, closed as one of the conditions of Lithuania’s entry to the EU in the same region in Visaginas, very close to the Belarusian border. Trying for some time to find an investor and potential partner among its neighbours Latvia, Estonia and Poland, Lithuania has failed so far to bring any company into particular interest in its project of nuclear power plant building.

Recent attempts of the Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, who optimistically expects the beginning of Lithuanian NPP construction in 3 years, do not seem very convincing. Even though the competition in finding a potential investor for the NPP construction has been announced and among the potential investors some European energy giants are mentioned, Lithuanian endeavours might be unsuccessful in light of the recent Belarus-Russia agreement.

Lithuanian scientist Jurgis Vilemas supports the fears of Šuškievič, believing that the choice of location of the Belarusian NPP is totally political, as a response to the official Lithuanian statement of its desire to build an NPP next to the Belarusian border, and is lacking scientific research. Vilemas believes that Lithuania’s voice on this question is too weak due to a lack of criticism from the Lithuanian side since they themselves tried to avoid confrontation with Belarusians in case Lithuanians were the first to build.

But now, with Belarus having found Russia as an investor, they have outrun Lithuania in closing the energy niche and left little hope for this Baltic state to find anyone to be interested in investing money in a similar project. This leaves Lithuania to be dependent on Russia/Belarus for energy.

Similar concerns were expressed by Lithuania’s foreign minister Audronius Ažubalis, who stated that Lithuania was not against Belarus building the NPP per se. However, he expressed his concern about the location and technology (more on the lack of information on the technology to be used) of the potential NPP, stressing that if something were to happen, it would threaten the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, which is only 50 km away. Ažubalis warned that unless the technology becomes public and can be evaluated and approved by the IAEA, Lithuania will object to the NPP construction using all possible means. He was followed by an address by the Lithuanian Parliament’s speaker Irena Degutiene and foreign affairs committee’s chairman Emanuelis Zingeris to the Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner. These activities of Lithuanian officials may again be seen in two ways. On the one hand, Lithuania can get information to resolve its concerns; but on the other hand, it could get some time to find a strategic investor for its own NPP project. Moreover, appealing to the location of the NPP to be constructed in the very heart of the historically contested Belarusian-Lithuanian borderland may potentially cause some nationalistic sentiments in the societies on both the sides of the border which will not contribute to the fulfillment of the principle of good neighbourliness.

Despite the tensions and hot discussion within the country as well as outside, Belarusian president Lukašenka officially stated that nothing would stop Belarus from building the NPP. Therefore, if the agreements are signed as planned and the construction is not to be delayed, the first reactor in Belarus could be expected to be launched in 2017, and the second in 2018.

Hanna Vasilevich

This article appeared in Belarusian Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, section Nuclear Power.
© 2011 Belarusian Review

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