New Nuclear Ambitions of Belarus

The prototype of two-reactor Belarusian nuclear plant

Last Thursday, director of the Nuclear Energy Department Mikalaj Hrusha unexpectedly began to talk about the need to enlarge Belarus' atomic energy program. According to the Belarusian authorities, the first Belarusian nuclear power plant may have four rather than two reactors.

Until recently, the government was planning to install two Russian-designed and built reactors with a capacity of 1,200 megawatt each. The current plan is to increase the entire Belarusian energy system capacity to 8,000 megawatt.  However, it appears that the authorities will fail to achieve one of the main objectives of the project: energy independence. On the contrary, the nuclear plant may make Belarus even more dependent upon Russia. 

Scramble For German Energy Market?

Belarus plans to build its nuclear plant 18 km from the town Astraviec on the border with Lithuania. The first reactor is expected to be put on line in 2017 and the second not later than 2018. Russian corporation «Atomstroieksport» will construct the Belarusian plant. Officially, it is the “leading engineering company of the 'Rosatom' state corporation which builds nuclear energy sites”.

The project is, however, controversial for the Russian side because Minsk opposes the establishment of a joint enterprise to sell the produced energy. In addition, Russia is also planning to construct by 2016 a nuclear power plant in its Kaliningrad enclave. This may lead to competition on the regional energy market between Kaliningrad and Belarusian nuclear installations. Lithuania and Poland are also going to build their own nuclear power plants, and no wonder, they are not eager to see Belarus as a rival in selling energy. All these nations also hope to sell energy from their nuclear facilities to a new large German energy market which will emerge as Berlin closes down all its nuclear power plants.

The issue of financing the Belarusian nuclear power plant, however, needs final settlement. The costs of its construction are estimated at USD 9bn, including 6bn to construct reactors and 3bn to build infrastructure. Since the very beginning Belarus has had no money with which to pay the costs. It planned to get a special loan from Russia, first for USD 6bn and then for USD 9bn. Moscow hesitated because the loan could actually be spent not on the nuclear power plant but rather on supporting the bankupt Belarusian economy.

When the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin visited Minsk in March 2011 the countries signed two cooperation agreements to build the new power plant. One related to the “parallel work of energy systems” of both countries, the other dealt with construction of the nuclear power plant.  Russia committed to provide USD 9bn as a loan for construction. The Belarusian parliament ratified the agreements on 20 October “in a closed session”, as the government knew about nuclear sensitivities of ordinary Belarusians who directly suffered from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The Belarusian regime is suppressing even the slightest protests against the new nuclear project, persecuting activists and banning any rallies and mass events about the problem*.

A Completely Russian Power Plant?

On 11 October, the «Atomstroieksport» signed an agreement to construct the first and second reactors in Astraviec in North Western Belarus. It is unclear how all these documents can be amended because clearly Belarus needs more money to double the capacity of its nuclear industry. Belarusian officials emphasized that to add two more reactors would presumably be cheaper than to construct the initial two, as basic infrastructure will already be in place. Nevertheless, today the government does not even have the money to cover the current needs of the country and cannot afford additional spending on a nuclear project from its own funds.

Media and NGOs raised environmental concerns about the Astraviec power plant, although some of them might be linked to economic and political interests of the neighboring nations, particularly Lithuania. The river Vilia flowing through the Lithuanian capital has been chosen as a water source for the new nuclear site. That could potentially threaten regional environmental security. Yet at the same time, the Lithuanian government itself is going to build a new nuclear power plant on the Belarusian border in Visaginas which undermines the sincerity of its concerns for the environment in the region. Meanwhile, on 20 October the Belarusian deputy minister of energy said that the IAEA and European Commission had no objections to Minsk concerning the location of the nuclear facility.

According to the recent reports of the Belapan news agency, some work has already begun on the Astraviec site. Yet the actual launch of full-scale construction still depends on a final agreement with Russia on its financing. It means that construction initially planned to begin this autumn may only start in spring 2012.

Announcing the project of nuclear power plant construction, the Belarusian ruler Aliaksandr Lukashenka talked about energy independence – meaning, of course, independence from Russian gas and oil. Since 2007 the Belarusian government even toyed with the idea of giving the nuclear power plant contract to non-Russian corporations - US, Japanese, French or German. Yet it had no money to pay for it, and the result was both sad and ironic. The Belarusian regime managed to get money only from Moscow.  

Now, the whole enterprise will be run by the Russians. The Russians will design and construct the plant for Russian money. The future Belarusian nuclear industry most probably will have to work under the guidance of Russian technical specialists. In addition, Russia will supply fuel and take back used nuclear material. The plant is likely to become part of an enterprise selling energy in the region and returning profits to Russia to pay the loan. Whether Belarus will gain any real benefits from the project, aside from the illusion of technical advancement and one more dangerous site, is likely a question without a positive answer.

SB

 

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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