ANALYSIS: Belarusian leader commemorates Chernobyl by waxing enthusiastic about nuclear power, but why would Lukashenko want a new nuclear power plant?

Плакат на митинге 26 апреля в Минске

Publish date: May 16, 2012

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has announced Belarus would be willing to build a second nuclear power plant (NPP) – in addition to the site Russia’s Rosatom is already building in that country. The announcement came, controversially enough, on the day when Belarus and the rest of the world commemorated the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 26, 1986.

That Belarus was entertaining thoughts of building a second nuclear power plant was a sentiment conveyed by Lukashenko during a meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano and, later, in the course of Lukashenko’s visit to one of Belarusian regions that took the brunt of the fallout from the world’s greatest nuclear catastrophe – on the anniversary of that catastrophe, no less.

How real are the prospects for another NPP in Belarus? Would the IAEA, in turn, be willing to support the nuclear ambitions of a country that remains, and will unlikely cease to be for a long time yet, under the heel of what many call the last of Europe’s standing dictatorships?

According to a report by the Belarusian state-owned news agency BELTA (in Russian), Lukashenko addressed the IAEA’s Amano with the following words during the official’s visit to Minsk on April 3: “If we have your assistance, support, and the conditions for it, we are ready to build a second nuclear power plant in Belarus.”  

Lukashenko expressed his confidence in nuclear power as the safest and cheapest source of energy and said the world has been going through an unusual period following the March 2011 – and still ongoing – nuclear crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, with Germany announcing a full phase-out of its commercial nuclear capacities and other countries declaring they were abandoning nuclear power as an energy source.

“During this special period, we state firmly and unequivocally that not only do we intend to build a nuclear power plant, but have already started its construction,” Belarus’s president said during the meeting.

Belarus is building a 2,400-megawatt nuclear power plant to an as-yet untested Russian VVER-1200 design near the town of Ostrovets in Grodno Region.

Georgy Lepin, Doctor of Engineering and a highly regarded Belarusian physicist and specialist in nuclear reactor technologies, believes Lukashenko’s statement was made specifically for the benefit of the IAEA’s Amano.

Lepin is a former “Chernobyl liquidator”: He was among thousands of those who rushed to the site of the 1986 disaster to volunteer services and expertise to help quell the staggering spread of contamination, and spent six years working in the most grueling and hazardous jobs both at ground zero and in the surrounding areas, later to become a fierce advocate for the rights of former liquidators and the general public who suffered from the accident.

“A representative of the IAEA came on a visit here, and, during this conversation, apparently, the IAEA supported Lukashenko in the [Ostrovets] NPP construction. And he was so moved by this that he’s now ready to build another one,” Lepin told Bellona in his comment on the announcement.

Some three weeks later, Lukashenko said the issue of building a second nuclear power plant in Belarus was not yet top of the agenda, but that the government was toying with the idea, and he would be glad if it were built. This was said during the Belarusian president’s visit to Bykhov Region, part of Mogilyov Region, which was among the territories that were most affected by the massive radioactive fallout from neighboring Ukraine’s Chernobyl when Reactor 4 at that plant exploded twenty-six years ago on April 26.

“I said half-jokingly that it wouldn’t be bad if [the IAEA] helped with the technologies, to build a second NPP. If, on the same terms as Russia is building [our Ostrovets] station, another nuclear station were built at a second site (you know, it’s ready and has been researched, in Mogilyov Region), we would be much richer, because we would have full energy security, there would be no dependence where electric power is concerned,” another BELTA report (in Russian) quoted Lukashenko as saying. 

“But if an investor is found on such terms as Russia is building a nuclear power plant for us, I’d be glad. Maybe, the Japanese, the Koreans, the French with the Germans, the Americans… Time will tell. But that would be nice, definitely,” Lukashenko said.

Meanwhile, the Ostrovets project is moving full steam ahead – despite the vigorous resistance to the construction on the part of the Belarusian public, both local residents and the wider population, as well as protests from independent experts and the Belarusian Anti-Nuclear Public Campaign. The project, dubbed AES-2006 (for NPP-2006), has yet to be tested in practical operation since no reactor has yet been completed to this design. Furthermore, because the site is just 50 kilometers away from Vilnius, the capital of the neighboring state of Lithuania, that EU member nation has opposed the project from the start and has engaged international regulatory bodies in an attempt to stop Belarus from implementing it. 

Yet, the project is under way. Last year, Belarus went into an intergovernmental and credit agreements on Ostrovets construction with Russia, followed by a contract agreement with Atomstroiexport, the foreign construction wing of Russia’s State Nuclear Corporation, Rosatom. And Ostrovets Region already has some of the infrastructure built for the future plant, such as access roads and railways, residential housing for the future employees, and auxiliary facilities. A site of around two square kilometers in total area has been leveled in preparation for the reactor construction.

Lepin: Belarus doesn’t have it in it to build any nuclear power plants

These developments aside, Physicist Lepin believes Belarus simply lacks what it takes to build a nuclear power plant – much less two.

“This talk is founded on nothing,” Lepin told Bellona. “There is no real basis for the construction of either the first or a second NPP in Belarus. There is no suitable location, nor specialists. There is no funding, and we’re getting into insane debt that we have no money to repay with.”

Ostrovets construction is estimated to cost Belarus $9.4 billion. But in Lepin’s opinion, the effort will likely set Belarus back by double that amount. That, in a country that kept making glaring headlines in the past year, as Lukashenko’s highly disputed victory in the December 2010 presidential election – which secured him yet another term after sixteen years in office – was quickly followed by a brutal crackdown on political opposition and a desperate economic crisis

Lepin also notes other factors that keep impeding the construction of the station in Ostrovets.

“We have neighbors (Lithuania), who do not like this construction. Belarusian residents are against it. When we researched the population’s attitude toward NPP construction as a special government commission in 1998, only six to seven percent Belarusians were for [the idea],” Lepin said in his comment to Bellona.

In the twelve years since, Belarusians have not changed their mind much about construction of a nuclear power plant in their country. An interactive poll conducted in May 2010 as part of a live broadcast from the Belarusian television station ONT (or Nationwide Television, in Belarusian) showed 87 percent of the 13,500 respondents did not believe in the safety of modern nuclear power plants. The massive pro-nuclear propaganda campaign that has been waged by the state in Belarus may have increased the ranks of nuclear power supporters from between 6 and 7 percent to 13 percent. Still, Lepin believes the 87 percent of those who oppose nuclear energy is too powerful a factor to disregard.

“All those who are against it will keep making themselves heard and, in the end, will not let the construction of the first, Ostrovets, NPP, happen, not to mention a second one,” Lepin said.

Lepin, furthermore, believes Belarus does not need nuclear power to begin with. According to the physicist, Belarus experiences no shortage of energy – or it would feel compelled to start modernizing its existing fossil-fuel-based cogeneration plants.

Most of Belarusian heat and power plants – with very few exceptions – are in need of modernization. This could be achieved by employing the combined gas-and-steam power cycle, which can increase a thermal power plant’s efficiency by 40 percent while reducing the prime cost of power produced by approximately as much. According to Lepin, modernization of all Belarusian heat and power plants would cost the country at least five times as little as construction of a nuclear power plant. It is significantly less time-consuming as well: The conversion of old plants into combined cycle plants would have to take no more than two years.

Both the decision to build the Ostrovets station and the president’s statements about Belarus considering building a second nuclear power plant are nothing more than political talk, Lepin said. There is no rationale to it that would have anything to do with energy considerations.

“So, they say, see, we’ll be selling electric power. This is nonsense if only because this power is too expensive,” Lepin said in his comment to Bellona, adding that the real prime cost of nuclear-produced power is about five to six times higher than that of thermal energy produced by conventional heat and power plants.

The issue of where to find potential buyers is not an idle one, either. Belarus’s neighbor Lithuania could theoretically become a customer, but it has been quite vociferous in its indignation over Belarus’s decision to build Ostrovets NPP, and has stated repeatedly that it has no interest in buying the electric power produced by the future plant.

Desperate bedfellows

It may not be by accident that Lukashenko aired his thoughts on building a second nuclear power plant precisely during his meeting with the IAEA’s Director General Amano. And it is unlikely by accident that Amano was treated to this highest-level red-carpet reception while on a visit to Belarus, either.

The meeting between Amano and Lukashenko took place barely a couple of weeks after the Committee for the Implementation of the Espoo Convention gathered to consider the alleged violations by Belarus of convention provisions while pursuing its nuclear power project in Ostrovets. The UN’s Economic Commission for Europe’s Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context – or the Espoo Convention, called so because it was signed in the Finnish town of Espoo in 1991 – is the main international legal act serving as the basis for evaluations of transboundary ecological risks carried by this or that industrial project implemented in an individual country. Both Lithuania and Belarus are Espoo signatories and, after two years of futile wrangling with Belarus over a multitude of environmental and other issues with respect to Ostrovets, Lithuania finally complained to the Espoo enforcement authority.

The committee considered Lithuania’s grievances (in Russian) and request to compel Belarus to cancel all of its prior decisions regarding Ostrovets construction last March 20 and 21, to issue its ruling in September. Despite official Minsk’s upbeat expectations of the contrary, the convention members may in fact decide to block the Ostrovets project. 

So it is possibly the risk of losing these international proceedings that may have prompted Lukashenko to seek IAEA support for its project in Ostrovets. His statements as quoted by BELTA seem to be channeling exactly that hope.

“I believe that the IAEA is an organization that has a great interest in seeing [nuclear power] projects, safe projects, of course, implemented in the world. So we are hoping very much that Mister Amano, just like those who headed the agency before him, may lend us strong moral support in the construction of our nuclear power plant,” BELTA reported Lukashenko as saying during his meeting with Amano.

And, in light of the possible ire from international authorities that Belarus may have to face come September, the revelation that Belarus would be glad to build a second nuclear power plant may have been an advance meant to secure the IAEA’s support for the first one. This gesture could be an indication that Belarus’s Ostrovets project has run into serious reputational problems and may in fact be on the brink of cancellation.

Yet, it may also be that it is not just official Minsk that needs the IAEA’s support – but the agency, too, could have its interest in cooperation with a country whose level of isolation in the international community is comparable with that of North Korea. The IAEA, whose stated goal is promoting the development of peaceful uses of atomic energy, is pretty much expected to want to throw its weight behind a new nuclear power plant project – especially in a world that is seriously reconsidering nuclear power after the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima.

The Belarusian physicist Lepin believes the Ostrovets project, being developed as it is during the nuclear power industry’s post-Fukushima reputational crisis, could be used by the IAEA in order to try to boost nuclear energy’s image.

“This could have to do, first and foremost, with a number of countries renouncing nuclear power, as well as the trend that sees atomic power projects being put on freeze across the world. And here Belarus, which was affected the worst by the Chernobyl catastrophe, could be seen by the pro-nuclear lobby as becoming a poster child of the peaceful atom,” Lepin said in his comment to Bellona.

Lukashenko, of course, is not blind to the sheer incongruity of the nuclear construction in Ostrovets taking place in a country that suffered the worst consequences of Chernobyl. But in conceding the fact of the dreadful Chernobyl legacy while trying to secure the IAEA’s support, he indulged in wishful thinking that was even more at odds with the reality, in which the Belarusians show a prevailing mistrust of nuclear power. 

“That the population today – we have succeeded in that – is supporting this project is quite symptomatic,” Lukashenko was quoted by BELTA as saying during his meeting with Amano.  

And Amano, in his turn, demonstrated Belarus could be useful for the IAEA’s reputational aspirations when he said, as cited by BELTA’s report on the meeting in Minsk, that Belarus was a very important partner for the agency because the country has had its sad experience dealing with the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident. The Fukushima disaster has dealt a serious blow to people’s confidence in nuclear power, Amano said, according to BELTA.   

Yet, whatever interest the IAEA may or may not have in its cooperation with Belarus, it doesn’t seem to be pursuing it with vigor. The Ostrovets project has been proceeding, by fits and starts, since 2008, and the IAEA has had opportunity to collect information on it in the past years. The agency could thus have used the Belarusian project as a banner for a nuclear revival campaign even before – and especially during – the difficult year of 2011, following the nuclear crisis at Fukushima. But it didn’t.

Even as it holds these talks with official Minsk in the name of saving the image of the nuclear power industry, the IAEA still probably grasps how indefensible the Belarusian example is for a world that as already seen Chernobyl and Fukushima in all their infamy.   

Belarus sinking into its own trap?

But as enthusiastic as the Belarusian president may be both about the Ostrovets construction and future nuclear projects, his statements reveal details that undermine Belarus’s own staunch position on Ostrovets and could be successfully used in the case that Ostrovets opponents are making against the project, including at the international level.

One of such compromising details is the fact that Lukashenko inadvertently acknowledged the possibility of building a nuclear power plant at a site other than Ostrovets – a major hole in Minsk’s defense against Lithuania’s repeated demands to reconsider the location.

“Official Belarus, when conducting the public discussion of the Environmental Impact Evaluation report on the [Ostrovets] NPP project – both domestically and internationally – claimed that the Ostrovets site was the only possible site for the construction. Any alternative locations were rejected citing karst and other adverse factors,” Igor Pastukhov, environmental protection expert with the Belarusian ecological organization Ekodom (Ecohome), told Bellona in a comment.

Karst is an area where the geological process of dissolution of soluble bedrock such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum has produced fissures, sinkholes, underground streams, or caverns. In simple words, building anything in a area prone to geological erosion is fraught with the risk of having the future site collapse underground – a risk all the more catastrophic when that future site is a nuclear power plant.

“But in point of fact,” Pastukhov said, “the Ostrovets site is the least suitable for [a nuclear power plant]. It is located in a seismically unstable zone and is surrounded, on both the Belarusian and Lithuanian sides, by specially protected natural territories, areas characterized by a concentration of a record high number and diversity of valuable biological species, including those on the endangered species list.”

According to Pastukhov, Lukashenko essentially subverted his own government’s assertions of there being no viable alternatives to Ostrovets when  he spoke, during his Chernobyl commemoration trip to Bykhov, of the site that “you know, [is] ready and has been researched, in Mogilyov Region.”

That location has indeed been researched well – in contrast to the hurried study done on Ostrovets. And Lukashenko’s stated hope of building a second nuclear power plant in Mogilyov Region arms Lithuania with a watertight argument in its continued insistence that Belarus move its NPP project away from the two countries’ shared border.

Vilnius could further use this argument in the international proceedings it has initiated – with the very possible result, next September, that the ambition of having two nuclear power plants Lukashenko so hopefully spoke of in his public statements may, eventually, leave Belarus with exactly none.