Belarus First Nuclear Plant: High Costs and Low Benefits

As Japan is dealing with radiation leaks and Germany is shuting down its nuclear plants, Belarus committed to build its own nuclear plant. Belarus has a special and tragic relationship with nuclear power. In 1986 most of the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear plant landed in Belarus. The country is still recovering from the aftermath of that disaster.

For years the Belarus authorities were toying with the idea of having its own nuclear plant station. Belarus is literally encircled by the Soviet-type power plants in neighboring countries without having its own. The main rationale to have its own nuclear energy is to diversify energy supplies. The country overwhelmingly relies on Russian oil and gas and the idea was that a nuclear power station would make Belarus more independent from Russia.

Earlier this month Belarus signed a number of agreements to build its first nuclear plant. However, it appears that in reality the nuclear plant will make Belarus even more dependent upon Russia. Prior to the elections Belarus was consulting French, Russian and US specialists on the construction of the plant. Following the violent post-election crackdown, the isolated Minsk has no choice but to use Russian contractors. Russia will not only build the station, but it will also lend money to Belarus for this purpose. Moreover, the nuclear fuel is likely to be supplied also by Russia and the nuclear waste will also need to be utilized in Russia. Instead of becoming more independent, Belarus will become financially, technologically and politically more dependent upon Russia.

The International Atomic Energy Agency recently corrected its forecasts on the use of nuclear power in the world. The demand for this sort of energy will be lower than previously thought because of safety concerns. The safety concern in Belarus is even greater than in Japan or Germany because transparency and monitoring mechanisms are weak or absent. In the absence of independent parliament, juridically and strong civil society, various abuses are likely to arise in the course of construction and maintenance of the plant. The price of such misconduct can be catastrophic.

The long-term economic efficiency of building nuclear power plants is also questionable. It is true that once the nuclear plant is up and running, the cost of energy is low. But the price of building the nuclear plant is enormous. If the plant’s decommissioning and nuclear waste storage costs are also taken into account, nuclear energy looks less attractive. If the risks of future uncertainties such as human errors or natural cataclysms are also considered, the long-term costs may far exceed the benefits.

It is no wonder that Lithuania, which is just across the border from the proposed nuclear plant (see the map above) is very worried. If the construction plans go ahead, the plant will be just 50 kilometers away from Lithuanian capital Vilnius. Both Belarus and Russian authorities give assurances that the plant will be very safe. However, the memories of post-Chernobyl propaganda which assured people that all was fine in later April 1986 are still too fresh to be forgotten. Europe should pay serious attention to this issue and do all it can to ensure that Europeans (Belarusians and Lithuanians included) are safe from yet another nuclear disaster.

YK

Yarik Kryvoi is the editor-in-chief of Belarus Digest and the founder of the Ostrogorski Centre.

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