COMMENT: Belarus: Credits, crises, and kidnappings – Is there really room for a nuclear power plant?

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Despite the economic crisis that recently descended upon this former Soviet republic, Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko does not seem to want to give up on the project of a nuclear power plant (NPP) that his government wants to build with the Russians’ help in Ostrovets, Grodno Region. The idea has both been the subject of vigorous protests on the part of the Belarusian population and environmentalists in Belarus and Russia and has also drawn harsh criticism from those neighbouring countries that may be directly affected by the future plant, especially in case of an accident. Still, President Lukashenko confirmed, during a press conference held in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, last June 17, his country is intent on continuing to push the project off the ground.

“The price of the NPP is high – seven billion dollars. The social infrastructure costs another two billion dollars. We’ll be given credits. There is no fear,” Lukashenko has been quoted in the media as saying last Friday.

“We’ll be given credits”?

The price and the terms under which Belarus would be getting the credit to build the NPP has long been a touchy subject: The country has no money of its own to handle such costly construction, nor has it been able to find any investors for the project. The only hope it can reasonably nurture is that of obtaining a huge and debtor-friendly credit from Russia.

As it stands, according to the words spoken by Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a January meeting with his Belarusian counterpart, Mikhail Myasnikovich, Russia estimated  construction costs at $6 billion. Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of the Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom – which is to provide the station design and build the station, too –  soon “corrected” the Russian premier, providing a somewhat higher estimate: “$6 billion to $7 billion plus infrastructure.”

Even as negotiations have been in progress ever since the preliminary agreement was reached between Russia and Belarus about the plant last January, Lukashenko is still insisting on a seven-billion-dollar credit from Russia and is still hoping to get the additional $2 billion in loan funds for the construction of associated infrastructure. One curious circumstance, however, is that part of the infrastructure needed for the plant’s operation has already been built – a motorway and a railway link, as well as housing to accommodate nuclear construction workers in the town of Ostrovets. Getting Russia to fork out billions of dollars for construction that has, at least partially, been already completed – and at a time when credits are also being sought to pull the country out of a deep financial hole it has ended up in – may be a fool’s errand, but it doesn’t stop Lukashenko asking.

Credits in exchange for loosening the screws – at least, some of them

… And having other nations provide a helping hand to a government that has been making headlines with its open use of force against dissidents, public activists, representatives of the mass media, political contenders – and ordinary protesters, as during the presidential election last December, where Lukashenko, already a sixteen-year incumbent, gained a highly contested victory – may be a lost cause, too, even if that hand is from the big brother Moscow, which has had a largely favourable stand toward Belarus, but has been none too pleased with Minsk’s treatment of Russian journalists reporting from Belarus.

Last Thursday, June 16, Russia’s Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin said, according to media reports: “The government of the Russian Federation is concerned about the measures undertaken by the Belarusian administration to restrain or limit [the activities of] Russia-based mass media. […] We are seeing restrictions on openness of information, disrespectful or unfriendly steps toward Russian media.”

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“We will unfortunately have to take this into account when providing new credits [to Belarus],” Kudrin said, “if, in the coming months, measures of this restrictive nature are taken again, then, of course, we reserve for ourselves the right to take measures to limit our credit support of Belarus.”

Kudrin’s statement does not only concern the so-far hypothetical credit that Belarus needs to make its highly unpopular NPP project happen, but also the $3 billion in credit funds that has already been negotiated and settled as a gesture of financial support from the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC or EurAsEC), an organisation that originated from the 1996 Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) customs union between Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan, and now unites member nations of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, with Armenia, Ukraine, and Moldova acting as observers. A first instalment of this credit line is expected to arrive in Belarus in the near future.

The reaction from Minsk was that these “statements have nothing to do with the real state of affairs and are not founded on anything,” according to Belarus’s Information Minister Oleg Proleskovsky, who was quoted in a June 17 report by the news agency BELTA. “Furthermore, we are surprised that such admonitions come from the minister of finance, who, to the best of my knowledge, is not responsible for the work of the media. It is all the more inappropriate to bring these issues into the agenda of economic cooperation between the two countries.”

But while refuting the allegations – and taking the offence over Kudrin’s reproach – the Belarusian authorities have signalled that they are ready to look into specific grievances, if any are extended to Minsk.

“If Mr. Kudrin knows of any restrictions or aggravations in Belarus with respect to Russian journalists, let him present concrete facts and we will consider this matter on its merits. But the Russian side has not forwarded any official complaints on this count so far,” BELTA reported Proleskovsky as saying.

The NPP and anti-nuclear protests

The idea that a nuclear power plant will be built in a country that has borne the brunt of the 1986 radioactive fallout from Chernobyl has faced unyielding protests from ecological organisations and ordinary Belarusian citizens. The traditional Chernobyl March, held every April 26 to commemorate that tragedy, took place this year under the slogan “No to NPP in Belarus!” Environmentalists have sent numerous appeals to both the Russian and Belarusian governments, urging the authorities to abandon the dangerous and unnecessary project and warning of the extensive corruption risks that may further undermine the project’s economic viability. And Lithuania and Austria keep insisting that Belarus stop its policy of not listening to their concerns and objections over the construction site being in such close proximity to the European Union. Bellona has covered these protests and objections extensively in its reporting on the Belarusian NPP project .

Local residents, especially, are none too happy to have a nuclear power plant operate right in their backyard. One of them, Nikolai Ulasevich, lives in the village of Vornyany, which is close to the construction site, and recently published an open letter (in Russian) to the chairman of the Belarusian Constitutional Court and the Prosecutor General. His letter says, in part:

“… I will tell you frankly: When I first happened to hear about the intention to build a nuclear power plant in Belarus, my first feeling was that only some big enemies of the Belarusian people, those pursuing some sort of personal, selfish interests, could push this idea, which is deadly for the post-Chernobyl Belarus. And myself, as a resident of Ostrovets Region and a geographer by education, I could not even conceive of our region being the place where a most environmentally dangerous and economically untenable site would be built.”

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Ulasevich’s letter being addressed to the highest-ranking officials of the judicial system in Belarus, the author demands that “all those responsible for pushing the criminal plans of building the NPP in Belarus toward completion” be identified and brought to “criminal account, since all of that activity of theirs is against the law and is clearly conducted to the detriment of our national interests.”

The sure-fail project

With the environmental risks being the public and ecologists’ first and foremost worry, the economic unfeasibility of the Ostrovets NPP project, and the future station’s irrelevance to both Belarus’s own economy and those of the neighbouring countries, makes for the second biggest concern associated with this endeavour.

So far, no information whatsoever has been presented either to experts in the field or the Belarusian public about the ultimate cost of the construction, nor about the site’s estimated operational costs – including both the purchases and handling of fresh fuel and long-term management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. Data compiled by independent experts indicate that the construction and operation of this unnecessary station will prove an unbearable burden on the Belarusian economy, while the electricity prices will grow even as the station is being built on account of the so-called “investment component” – a mark-up on the existing tariff that power consumers will have to pay to justify the construction costs.

This is what the local activist Ulasevich writes on this issue in his open address:

“I am also bewildered by the fact that once having made the decision to build the NPP, the Belarusian authorities have as yet not shown the public any financial or economic feasibility report or relevant estimations demonstrating the expediency of said construction. I believe all of this can only mean one thing: That the economic advisability of the NPP construction in Belarus is very much in doubt. This is also fully confirmed by the complete absence of a single economic factor needed to support this construction in Belarus. Namely, we have no money to build this very expensive site, nor specialists in the field who could build it and then operate it, nor a nuclear technology of our own, nor any nuclear fuel of our own for the future NPP.”

The participants of the 2011 Forum of Belarusian Environmental NGOs, which took place this year in early June and gathered over 120 environmentalists from Belarus and other countries, expressed a similar sentiment in a resolution they adopted at the forum:

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“Nuclear energy is economically indefensible and so, in particular, is the project of the Belarusian NPP, especially in the conditions of the current economic crisis in Belarus. Significant financial means and material resources may end up being tied up in the nuclear energy sector, which will lead to shrinking investments into modern technologies of energy efficiency, energy conservation, and renewable energy, and will lead the energy industry of the country into a dead end.”

Some of the concerned voices are heard on the political arena as well.

“Does Belarus even need a nuclear power plant?” asked Grigory Kostusev in his comment (in Belarusian) published on the website of the news agency Naviny.By. Kostusev is deputy chairman of the BNF Party and former presidential candidate in the 2010 campaign. “Shouldn’t we direct more of our efforts on developing technologies that would see us use local fuels and renewable energy sources?”

Energy security? Oh please

“Because the energy security of our country depends now wholly and entirely on the monopoly supplies of carbon fuels from Russia, substituting an equivalent in the form of nuclear fuel supplies from Russia for part of those supplies makes no principal difference whatsoever. Or rather, not only will it not help decrease, but will, on the contrary, only solidify our energy dependence on Russian supplies, of yet another kind of fuel in this case – nuclear fuel,”
 Ulasevich writes in his open letter.

He points out that the Russian nuclear technology, once it has been employed at the NPP in Ostrovets – the two-reactor site is being built to a Russia-developed AES-2006 (NPP-2006) design featuring the VVER-1200 reactor series – will always have to be what Belarus will have committed itself too: There is no changing the preferences when the site has been built. So the kind of “diversification” of energy consumption that nuclear proponents advocate, Ulasevich writes, will never lead to energy stability and security for the Belarusian state. However you look at it, all the fuels Belarus will need for its industry and for society’s needs have been and will be purchased from the same source: Russia

“Furthermore,” said Ulasevich in his letter, “we will become thoroughly dependent on Russia for technologies and workforce, with all the negative consequences this will entail for us. And Russia, be it even triple-tied to us with brotherly ties, it is still a different nation and it has its own national interests, which do not by any means always coincide with ours. There is enough in all those constant, never-ending oil-and-gas and other economic hostilities that have been raging between our two states for many years to remind us of that.”

As if echoing Ulasevich’s letter, President Lukashenko, during his press conference on June 17, referred to the lack of qualified nuclear personnel needed to work at the Ostrovets NPP as a problem for Belarus:

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According to a report by BelaPAN, Minsk has been looking “all over the world” for a candidate to head the future station, Lukashenko said, and “enormous sums of money are being spent” on it. “We are looking, sweet-talking, and, excuse me for saying this, stealing, poaching from other states,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying.

One hopes it doesn’t ever come to actual kidnappings. But facts indicate that it’s not Belarus or Russia that need the Belarusian NPP at all: The only entity that has a vital interest in making this project materialise is the Russian nuclear corporation Rosatom, which has the Fukushima disaster to thank for seeing all its reactor orders slipping through its fingers lately. This is why, ever since Fukushima, Rosatom has been waging an aggressive propaganda campaign advertising the safety of Russian reactor technologies. This is also why the project of the NPP in Belarus’ Ostrovets has such significance for Rosatom. But the project will have to be financed by the Russian government – read, the Russian taxpayers’ money – and whether the nuclear corporation will succeed in persuading Moscow to allocate the necessary funds to build the site against the unabated opposition shown by the Belarusian public and other nations, and, indeed, in defiance of common sense, is not yet a certainty.

What is certain for now is that the project has been lagging over a year behind the initial schedule. And there is also still a possibility that the signing of the credit agreement between the finance ministries of the two countries may not happen in June as expected. It all depends on whether, between concentrating its efforts on promoting an unneeded NPP and struggling to hold the country’s fast-disintegrating economy together, the Lukashenko government finds the time to heed the Kremlin’s growing reservations.

Andrey Ozharovsky

idc.moscow@gmail.com

Maria Kaminskaya