Controversial new nuclear plant ignites Belarus

Thirty years after Chernobyl catastrophe, construction of new nuclear station on border with Lithuania stirs debate.

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Mikalai Ulasevich, a United Civil Party member, holds out a bulletin that reads: 'Astravets atomic [power plant] - is a crime' [Benas Gerdziunas/Al Jazeera]

Minsk, Belarus – Thirty years after an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station devastated the countryside on the southern border of Belarus, leaving behind lasting consequences for millions of people, the construction of a new nuclear station is stirring discord between government officials, opposition politicians, the local populace and foreign diplomats.

The death of a 43-year-old Russian contractor last month, after an explosion at the Belarusian nuclear power plant (BelNPP) construction site near Astravets in northern Belarus on its border with Lithuania, is only the latest in a string of little-publicised incidents that has raised concerns at home and abroad about the how the station is being constructed.

On July 10 of this year, the 330-tonne reactor casing dropped from a height of between two and four metres in an incident that only came to the public’s attention two weeks later when a member of the Belarus United Civil Party, Mikalai Ulasevich, leaked the news to the local press.

The Ministry of Energy eventually released a statement acknowledging the incident, and Rosatom – the Russian state nuclear corporation and the primary contractor for the project, said that tests had revealed the dropped casing to be safe.

Concerns and opposition

However, with the memory of Chernobyl looming large, both the energy ministry and Rosatom, which agreed to replace the casing to “mitigate rumours and panic among the population” have so far failed to reassure all Belarusians of the station’s safety.

“They are building a crematorium,” Ulasevich says, driving through the rural village of Varniany where BelNPP’s stacks loom over the horizon.

“The only way to guarantee the safety of the plant is to cease its construction.”

Anti-BelNPP activists, including Ulasevich, are concerned by the government’s decision to build the plant in an ecologically pristine region of the country’s north, surrounded by agricultural land and lakes not affected by Chernobyl.

They have also accused the Belarusian government of violating both the Aarhus and Espoo environmental protection conventions in the planning and the construction of the station in Astravets.

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Both Rosatom and the energy ministry declined to comment in response to activists’ allegations. However, ministry spokesperson Zhanna Zenkevich referred Al Jazeera to a the BelNPP website, which states that Belarus fully honours its commitments resulting from almost a dozen international treaties and conventions. Every month, it says, nuclear materials and the plants of Belarus are inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Furthermore, addressing the Espoo convention in March this year, First Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of Belarus, Iya Malkina, said: “Belarus has always aimed for strict fulfilment of the provisions of the Espoo convention, as well as all procedural aspects envisaged by it and will keep this up. Designing Belarusian NPP, Belarus has carried out the environmental impact assessment procedure in strict accordance with the convention.”

Threatened neighbour

News of the spate of accidents has been met with concern in neighbouring Lithuania. The country’s interior ministry recently indicated that plans were being drafted, in the event of an accident at Astravets, for the evacuation of the capital, Vilnius, which is only 50km from the BelNPP construction site.

Meanwhile, Lithuania has called for Belarus to carry out IAEA stress tests at the site, during which experts both from the EU and Lithuania may be present.

A Lithuanian delegation for the plant said that until the tests are carried out, Belarus should halt the construction work. In August, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite described the project as an “existential” threat to European security.

Igar Gubarevich, senior analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre in Minsk, told Al Jazeera that Lithuania’s resistance to the plant is partially fuelled by the fact the BelNPP is being built by Russia, whose technology and influence is trusted little in the Baltic country.

“Lithuania wants EU countries in the region to boycott the Belarusian project,” he said, “while Belarusian diplomats in the neighbouring countries seek to lure them into buying cheap energy from the NPP after it becomes operational.

“The series of incidents at the construction site has made Lithuania’s position stronger,” he added. “Now, Belarus has to make an extra effort to dissipate the safety concerns, probably by agreeing on larger international audit of the construction site and the project.”

In front of the Astravets nuclear power plant [Benas Gerdziunas  /Al Jazeera] 
In front of the Astravets nuclear power plant [Benas Gerdziunas /Al Jazeera] 

Public mistrust

By June of this year, the Belarussian public was largely split on BelNPP. A poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies suggested that a slight majority – 35 percent or respondents – disapproved of the project.

Tatyana Korotkevich, who was an independent candidate in the country’s parliamentary elections in September, told Al Jazeera in her offices in central Minsk that Belarusians in her electorate feel their questions about the plant have not been sufficiently addressed by the government.

“We need a public hearing where economic and ecological specialists, the Ministry of Energy and those building BelNPP can fully address public concerns,” she said.

Meanwhile, during election campaigning, Green Party candidate Dmitry Kuchuk appeared on state-run television wearing a gas mask saying: “If we do not stop the construction, we will look like this.”

When an explosion rocked the Chernobyl nuclear power station in northern Ukraine in 1986, 70 percent of the fallout descended on Belarus, the UN estimates. The fallout affected more than 2.2 million people, including 500,000 children, and led to the evacuation of 2,000 villages.

Concerns over the new station, which is being likened to Chernobyl, are not limited to Belarus.

In the village of Medininkai on the Lithuanian side of the border, 80-year-old pensioner Irina recalls how the information vacuum following Chernobyl stirred fear along the border.

“I remember being afraid to walk in the streets,” she told Al Jazeera. “No one knew what was happening. And now [authorities in Minsk] are hiding accidents again.”

Belarusian Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich, whose collection of survivor testimonies “Chernobyl Prayer” painstakingly documents the human impact of the nuclear disaster in Ukraine and Belarus, described Lukashenko’s decision to progress plans for the nuclear station as “a crime”.

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Who will profit?

Energy analysts and activists alike say that the government’s economic arguments for the station are outdated since the Belarusian economy entered into a decline that the World Bank forecasts will continue into 2017 [PDF].

They say there is little evidence to suggest that the country’s economy would benefit from or even require the energy surplus the $11bn BelNPP will produce.

Minsk, which in July owed Moscow almost $300m in energy debts, hopes its nuclear project will help to levy energy independence. But anti-nuclear activists and independent analysts note that Russia, the primary contractor, will be the sole supplier of fuel for the project once completed.

“NPP may diminish the share of Russian gas in Belarus’ energy mix,” says Wojciech Kononczuk, energy analyst at the Centre for Eastern Studies, “and as a result, Belarusian gas imports from Russian could drop to 17 billion cubic metres per year from 22 now.”

“On the other hand,” he said, “Russia will be the only fuel supplier to BelNPP, so that dependence will remain.

“From the very beginning,” Kononczuk added, “NPP was designed as an export-oriented plant aimed to deliver energy to EU markets, mainly Poland and the Baltic States. However, it seems that neither Poland nor the Balts are interested in buying energy from BelNPP.”

Like thousands of Belarusians following Chernobyl, anti-nuclear activist Tanya Novikova was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She, like other anti-nuclear activists in Belarus, including Ulasevich, report having been detained and harassed in their opposition to the plant. But Novikova won’t be deterred, she told Al Jazeera.

“I personally know that the consequences of Chernobyl may be more scary, more dramatic than being arrested,” she said.

Theresa looks out across the fields towards the nuclear power plant under construction - 'Before it used to be all forest' [   Benas Gerdziunas   /Al Jazeera] 
Theresa looks out across the fields towards the nuclear power plant under construction – ‘Before it used to be all forest’ [ Benas Gerdziunas /Al Jazeera] 

Additional reporting by Benas Gerdziunas. Follow Jonathan Brown on Twitter: @jonathaneebrown 

Source: Al Jazeera