By David Marples
According to Belarusian First Vice-Prime Minister, Uladzimir Syamashka, the end of July was scheduled to mark the finalization of an agreement between Belarus and Russia to build the nuclear power station at Astravets in the Hrodna region with construction of the station to start next July (Svobodnye Novosti Plyus, July 14-21). Unsurprisingly, given recent tensions between the two countries, that did not happen. Moreover, there is increasing pressure on Belarus from various sides to abandon the enterprise altogether.
The evolution of the Belarusian nuclear power station has been noted for its fluctuations, cost and financing issues, timing, and primarily, its role in the potential saturation of a small area of northeastern Europe with similar projects. One visitor to Astravets, Lithuanian Prime Minister, Andrius Kubilius, noted that while some construction work has been done on roads and basic infrastructure, the building of the station itself is not yet underway and could conceivably be abandoned. Lithuania has cited environmental concerns, including the potential impact of the Astravets plant on its river systems, and its location only 28 miles from the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius (Narodnaya Volya, August 2).
However, plans to build a new Lithuanian station at the same location as the Ignalina plant, which was decommissioned at the end of 2009, are more controversial (Interfax, July 8). Ignalina is located at the conjunction of three borders: those of Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus. It supplied 78 percent of Lithuania's electricity through two RBMK reactors, which initially had a capacity of 1500 megawatts, but which was reduced to 1300 megawatts at the insistence of the EU. The EU's concomitant demand to close the station as soon as possible has led to the situation whereby only Russia operates an RBMK station, and Lithuania is for the moment completely dependent upon imported Russian gas for its electricity needs. Lithuania is thus anxious to work with its European partners to construct a safer station, though full details will only be known in the fall (NewEurope, July 18).
The Baltic region may also see two other reactors come into service very shortly: a new unit at the Leningrad nuclear power station at Sosnovyi Bor, near St. Petersburg (four are planned altogether to replace the obsolete RBMK-1000 reactors of the Chernobyl type) and a highly controversial third unit at the Olkiluoto station in Finland (Bellona, August 2). Both Poland and Estonia are reportedly considering nuclear plants of their own (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf102.html). The potential build-up of nuclear power stations in the region resembles the situation in the European USSR in the mid-1980's and indicates a new confidence in the industry.
Moscow's decision to build another new nuclear plant -called the Baltic Nuclear Power Station- in Kaliningrad Oblast seemed designed as a counter to the new edifice to be erected at the Ignalina site (EDM, March 12). It also signifies that the Astravets station now has a low priority in Moscow. Yet, Belarus is almost entirely dependent on Russia for Astravets, both for its construction and operation. The goal of bringing the first unit on line in 2016 is entirely unrealistic. Moscow offered financing of up to $6 million, which would have covered about two-thirds of the total costs. Belarus asked for $9 million. Moscow then demanded that 50 percent of the ownership of the plant would accrue to the Russian energy company Inter RAO UES, which is 57 percent owned by Rosatom, through the operation of a joint venture. The Belarusians, in turn, suggested that a third unit should be constructed (only two were planned originally) directed exclusively to Russian needs. Moscow promptly rejected that proposal (www.naviny.by, July 31).
One former native of the Hrodna region, Dr. Yuri Bandazhevsky, who was persecuted in Belarus after investigations into the effects of low-level radiation at his clinic in Homel, mounted a stinging attack on the proposed station from the perspective of both health and environmental concerns. Bandazhevsky, who currently heads the "Ecology and Health Center" in Kyiv, commented that all Belarusians have received an adverse impact from radiation over the past 50 years both before and after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. He criticized the International Atomic Energy Agency as a body that popularizes the industry despite its proven harmful effects (Svobodnye Novosti Plyus, July 14-21).
The task of the Belarusians now is to persuade their Russian partner that the enterprise should go ahead as planned. However, the Russians are hardly in a mood to make concessions, given the current deterioration of relations between Moscow and Minsk. A series of critical television programs and media articles about the Belarusian president have been released and several leaders of the Belarusian political opposition have recently received a warm welcome in Moscow (BelGazeta, July 26). Several analysts have suggested that Russia is even ready to replace its former ally Lukashenka with a more amenable figure (The New York Times, August 1), though it remains unclear whether there will be any serious effort to unseat him.
All the countries in the region appear prepared to push ahead with their own nuclear power programs. Belarus, having decided to rely on financing and construction of its reactors from Russia, has been put in a very embarrassing situation given the widespread domestic propaganda about the new station. There are two alternative options -to end the partnership with Russia and find a new sponsor; or to shelve the project, which would be a humiliating defeat for Lukashenka.