Belarus to swap gas dependence on Moscow for nuclear dependence on Moscow

Rosatom's headquarters in Moscow.
Rosatom's headquarters in Moscow.
Charles Digges/Bellona

Publish date: March 24, 2020

A nuclear power plant built to lessen Belarus’s dependence on Moscow for natural gas – but constructed and lavishly financed by Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom – is due to begin operation later this year, officials in the Belarus capital of Minsk have said.

A nuclear power plant built to lessen Belarus’s dependence on Moscow for natural gas – but constructed and lavishly financed by Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom – is due to begin operation later this year, officials in the Belarus capital of Minsk have said.

The plant will feature two VVER-1200 reactors – the second of which will come online next year – that will together generate some 2.4 gigawatts of power in the cloistered post-Soviet dictatorship on Russia’s western border.

The International Atomic Energy Agency found that the plant largely fulfilled general safety guidelines and issued a number of recommendations for improvement. Others have raised alarm over potential safety issues. GlobalData quoted energy and nuclear policy analyst Mycle Schneider as warning: “Neighboring countries have voiced concern over the lack of review of some serious safety concerns, and Lithuania has transmitted an official note to the European Council.”

Since its inception in the early 2000s, the Belarus nuclear power plant, in Ostrovets near the border of Lithuania, has been fraught with difficulties. Environmentalists who oppose the plant are routinely harassed and stifled and in some cases kicked out of the country.

Neighboring Lithuania, once seen as a promising potential market when construction began, is now so opposed to the plant that its parliament outlawed purchasing any electricity it produces and has sent envoys to other countries encouraging them to do the same. Poland and the Ukraine have also spoken out against the plant.

Each of these groups have called attention to the mishaps that have plagued the plant during its construction, including an incident in 2016 when technicians inadvertently dropped a 330-ton reactor pressure vessel – which houses the core – from a crane. A replacement unit sent to the site was accidentally run into a column at a railway station when it arrived.

belarus reactor shell Assembly of the reactor vessel for Ostrovets unit 2 at the manufacturing plant in Russia Credit: Rosatom

But the plant also illustrates an energy conundrum facing many European countries. While a number of nations in the old Soviet orbit seek to diversify their energy supplies away from Russian natural gas, Rosatom is more than willing to step into the vacuum left by that shift.

By offering huge loans to build and supply nuclear power plants, Rosatom can keep customers financially and technically beholden to Moscow for as long as 50 years.

With other kinds of power infrastructure, a contractor builds a facility and leaves it to be operated by the country where it stands. Not so with nuclear power plants, where foreign government customers, like Belarus, remain dependent on Rosatom – and thus the Russian state – for fuel, know-how and eventual decommissioning works.

That geopolitical strategy is not lost on Lithuania, whose prime minister recently told the New York Times that: “The [Ostrovets} nuclear plant is an example of Russia’s desire to keep states along its borders in its orbit at all costs – it helps them preserve more influence.”

The policy is has broad implications. Rosatom has convinced dozens of countries to sign memorandums of understanding on all manner of nuclear services, from research and training facilities to nuclear power plant construction. As a result, Rosatom says that its portfolio of foreign projects has swelled to more than $200 billion.

But that figure invites skepticism. Many of the counties Rosatom counts toward that figure – like Ethiopia, Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan and Rwanda – won’t be ready to support nuclear power on their grids for decades. Others where Rosatom builds are already underway – like India’ Kudankulam, Iran’s Bushehr and China’s Tianwan – are already familiar with Rosatom’s typical cost overruns and delays.

Furthermore, a deep dig into Rosatom’s claimed income by the Russian environmental group Ecodefence revealed that business wasn’t going quite as indicated.

A report by the group, published last year, detailed a number of cases where the corporation misstated the worth of its overseas reactor construction projects, and inflated their worth by several billion dollars.

Still, the corporation is an ambitious and successful presence on the international market. According to one study, cited by the New York Times, Rosatom has sold more nuclear technology abroad since 1999 than the United States, France, China, South Korea and Japan combined.

Rosatom’s approach to marketing its reactors is distinct from its western competitors because it offers to finance, build and operate the plants that it builds abroad. These generous terms come thanks to the enormous state subsidies Rosatom receives – and which it can then funnel into loans that boost its profits on paper.

The Belarus plant, for instance, comes thanks to a $10 million line of credit from Rosatom. Hungary, a member of the EU, became another customer when it took an $11 billion loan to build its Paks II in 2016. Rosatom also won a $30 billion contract for four reactors in Egypt, and another big nuclear plant deal in Turkey. 

While it’s tempting to see a strategy afoot in Rosatom’s foreign projects, the Kremlin insists itjust business. President Vladimir Putin has publicly distanced himself from mixing politics with foreign commerce.