Belarus hints at building a second nuclear power plant without resolving problems at its first

The Belarusian nuclear power plant.
The Belarusian nuclear power plant.

Publish date: February 23, 2023

Written by: Tatyana Ivanova

Translated by: Charles Digges

The Unit 2 reactor at the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant — built to showcase Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom’s AES-2006 reactor design in a foreign setting — has not yet been put into operation and work on it is far behind schedule.

The Unit 2 reactor at the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant — built to showcase Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom’s AES-2006 reactor design in a foreign setting — has not yet been put into operation and work on it is far behind schedule.

The Unit 1 reactor at the station is unstable and has been idle for almost half the time since its grand opening in November of 2020.

Against this backdrop, President Alexander Lukashenko and his Ministry of Energy have declared their intention to build a second nuclear plant amid Western sanctions and the Belarusian regime’s support for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

How does the current political and economic situation affect the Belarusian nuclear program and what risks does it bear for the already existing BelarusianNPP?

Startup of the Unit 2 reactor at the BelNPP is planned but not guaranteed

On February 11, Roman Golovchenko , the Belarusian prime minister, announced in a meeting with Rosatom officials that the first connection to the network of the second power unit of the BelNPP “with access to the power start-up stage” would take place in March 2023. However, according to to Deputy Energy Minister of Belarus Mikhail Mikhadyuk, who spoke several days before Golovchenko’s announcement, this couldn’t be expected before the second half of this year.

Between the trial connection to the network and commissioning, according to Mikhadyuk, “a large amount of physical, electrical and other tests are expected in various operating modes of the unit with a phased increase in its capacity.” According to the deputy minister, this process will take “at least six months.” In other words, the commissioning of this unit, at best, will occur no earlier than September 2023.

Thus, the commissioning of the Unit 2 is lagging by almost a calendar year, based on plans announced last year. Thus, on April 26, the day of the physical start-up of the Unit 2 reactor, which coincided with the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Aleksey Likhachev, the general director of Rosatom, announced his intention to put this unit into commercial operation by the end of the year.

If we focus on Article 1 of the intergovernmental agreement on the construction of the BelNPP from 2011, which prescribes the commissioning of the second power unit in 2018, then the delay will be about five years.

But even the updated plans don’t look realistic. According to Mikhail Mikhadyuk, construction and installation work on it is “almost completed” —  that is to say, not yet completed. The commissioning of the main equipment is “ongoing”, and, obviously, is far from complete, because there is still the long stage of testing at Unit 2, which precedes any output to design capacity.

Thus, it is more likely that the Unit 2 reactor will be put into operation no earlier than the end of 2023 or the beginning of 2024, especially given the current political and economic situation.

“Planned” downtime of the BelNPP Unit 1 reactor

In the conditions of economic and, in particular, the energy isolation of Belarus from the Western market and Western suppliers, the functioning of its nuclear power plant is facing serious problems.

According to Golovchenko, in 2022, Unit 1 of the BelNPP generated only 4.69 billion kWh, while 11.7 billion kWh have been generated over the entire period of its operation. While the designed annual output of two power units is 17.74 billion kWh, for one it is 8.87 billion kWh.

According to estimates by independent journalists, the Unit 1 reactor has been idle for about half of the time since it was connected to the grid. The reasons for this state of affairs lie not only in Western sanctions and war, but also in numerous deviations from standards. Thus, the construction, in particular, the work of the zero cycle on laying the foundation for the reactor building, began about a year before the appearance of the architectural design of the station.

The physical startup of the Unit 1 reactor was timed to coincide with the presidential elections and occurred 10 months before the issuance of a license for operation — national legislation being amended to accommodate this. The political forcing of the commissioning of the Unit 1 reactor led after its grand opening on November 7, 2020 to a stoppage for repairs after only three days due to the failure of voltage transformers.

According to information from various sources and the testimonies of plant workers, the reactor could have been started with an inoperable passive emergency cooling system, since one of the backup cooling system tanks was damaged as a result of one of the many accidents. These and other incidents and factors resulted in long-term shutdowns of the unit for what were called “scheduled repairs.”

Unit 1’s downtime may also be due to the fact that it cannot be integrated into the energy network. Namely, with a lack of cold and hot reserve capacities. Judging by the reports of government sources, by the time the first power unit was put into operation, the reserve capacities were far from being ready in required volumes.

According to official news sources, the first gas turbine of the six required for the BelNPP’s peak reserve capacities was due to be delivered to the Minsk Thermoelectric Station 5 in June 2021. The Berezovskaya and Lukomlskaya regional power stations were also supposed to act as reserve for the BelNPP.

However, these plans were not destined to come true in the face of Western sanctions imposed on Belarus after the country was recognized as an accomplice to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thus, the German company Siemens, whose turbines and software were intended for peak-reserve Belarusian state district power plants, announced the termination of its cooperation with Russia and Belarus.

However, even before the start of hostilities against Ukraine, energy produced by the  BelNPP was already blocked by the European market. Belarus owes this both to the unfortunate location of the BelNPP in Ostrovets — just fifty kilometers from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius and twenty kilometers from the border with the European Union, as well as to the unsafe construction which took place in violation of technical standards and international conventions.

This led in 2021 to the European Parliament producing a resolution stating that the BelNPP is unsafe. After Belarus connected Unit 1 to the grid, Lithuania canceled licenses for the import Belarusian-produced electricity. Earlier, in 2017, Lithuanian Parliament had recognized the Belarusian nuclear power plant as unsafe, and in 2019 it passed a law preventing the import of electricity produced by unsafe nuclear power plants.

These decisions were also influenced by the stress tests of the BelNPP, which Belarus conducted belatedly only in 2016-2018. That is to say, the test more boldly revealed the problems the Russian AES-2006 project had in complying with European safety standards.

It is worth noting that it was the specifics of the AES-2006 project — for example, the shortcomings in its design and its lack of necessary technical documentation — that led to Finland freezing the construction license for its Rosatom-bult Hanhikivi-1 NPP. With the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine and the seizure the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear sites, Finland unilaterally refused further services from Rosatom.

The demonstrative withdrawal of Belarus from the UN’s Aarhus Convention on July 18 last year became the event that cemented the isolation of the BelNPP.

The reason for this was largely the situation around the BelNPP, violations during the construction of which formed the basis of several cases brought before the bodies enforcing this convention. Compliance with convention obligations ensures that decision-making and implementation processes for projects impacting the international environment are open and democratic — decisions that are reflected in the international reputation of the country.

Safety: old problems, new challenges

The above-mentioned experience of commissioning Unit 1 shows that both the Russian contractor and the Belarusian customer allow construction, repair and adjustment work to be carried out at the unit after the physical and even power start-up of the reactor plant. This creates additional safety hazards, because these works are associated with radiation risks, since both the fuel and the reactor vessel are already irradiated.

Even before the start-up of Unit 1, accidents occurred with the principal equipment during its construction. In the summer of 2016, the reactor vessel was dropped from a height during an attempt to assemble it, and under public pressure it was replaced. The vessel that was sent to replace it collided with a concrete column at a railway station during transport. Regardless, it was installed.

Various sources, including plant workers, mentioned repeated problems with the Unit 1 cooling system, which persisted after its power start-up. In the summer of 2022, independent Belarusian media reported on a possible incident at the station, which could lead to personnel exposure. The Ministry of Energy called this information “fake.”

These and other features of the construction process prevent us from asserting that both the Unit 1 and Unit 2 reactors are free of unresolved problems and serious safety  vulnerabilities.

This state of affairs is attracting close international attention in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and the shelling and seizure of the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plants. During the tensest moments during the seizure of the Zaporizhzhia plant by the Russian army and Rosatom employees, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War warned of possible provocations at the BelNPP by Russia.

Minsk’s political crisis of 2020 and subsequent repressions add drama to the situation, after which conditions at the station became even more closed and even less transparent to independent experts and observers.

Belarusian nuclear program: curtailment is not expansion

Since the beginning of this year, Belarusian officials have repeatedly announced plans to build a second nuclear power plant in Belarus. The rhetoric of the Deputy Minister of Energy shows that here, too, the main motive is political. Thus, Mikhadyuk, the deputy energy minister, notes that work on a feasibility study for a second Belarusian nuclear plant has to take into account the existing energy surplus and lack of demand for electricity produced the first power unit of the BelNPP.

“The first stage of work is a forecast of electricity consumption in the country for the future. The second point is how much it will fit into the operation of the power system,” Mikhadyuk said.

“To do this, Belarus must reach a certain level of electricity consumption. Now we are studying everything, working with the Ministry of Economy and the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus to develop a feasibility study in the near future in order to make a final decision.”

Such statements, as well as the experience of building the first two units of the BelNPP, leave no doubt that the Belarusian nuclear program will be implemented and, possibly, expanded without much regard for economic feasibility, safety standards and environmental risks, but solely under the pressure of the political interests of the current leadership of Belarus.