07/09/2008 - 11:49

Belarus takes a second look at nuclear energy

Anya Loukianova

Anya Loukianova

Loukianova is a research associate at the James Martin Center for...

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When Unit Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in the middle of the night on April 26, 1986, the resulting radioactive fallout contaminated the territory of three countries--Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Belarus in particular bore a heavy burden, as cesium and iodine particles spread across 23 percent of the country. The devastation forced the resettlement of thousands of Belarusian families and left a legacy of persistent medical and psychological problems, leading to a national allergy to all things nuclear.

Ales Adamovich, the late Belarusian writer and anti-nuclear activist, expressed the national sentiment in 1989 when he said Belarusians "don't want any kind of nuclear power--even safe nuclear power."

His admonition has held for almost two decades. But now, Belarus' authoritarian president Aleksandr Lukashenko is seeking to build a 2,000-megawatt nuclear power plant to reduce the country's reliance on imported energy sources, particularly Russian natural gas. His government has indicated that the plant, expected to cost $4 billion, will consist of two generation III water-cooled, water-moderated reactors.

Currently, three potential sites are under review: Krasnopolyanskaya, in the Mogilyov province near Russia--although the site is contaminated by cesium; Kukshinovskaya, also in Mogilyov; and Ostrovetskaya, near Lithuania in Grodno. One of these will be selected by the end of the year, and preliminary work is set to begin in early 2009. If all goes according to plan, Minsk expects to commission the first unit by 2016 and the second unit shortly thereafter. Ambitious plans by some in the country's scientific establishment include the construction of several more nuclear reactors and the nuclear generation of 85 percent of the country's electricity by 2050.

Lukashenko's nuclear PR campaign

Belarus is home to a sophisticated nuclear research program. But since the country's independence from the Soviet Union, its research capacity hasn't translated into practical nuclear-energy applications. Public sentiment after Chernobyl halted construction of a cogeneration plant based on Soviet light water reactor (VVER) technology near Minsk and the planning of another plant near the northeastern city of Vitebsk. Yet, faced with heat and electricity shortages, Belarusian authorities have flirted with the idea of a nuclear comeback.

In the early 1990s, Belarus considered procuring VVER and CANDU reactors from Canada and initiated discussions with Russia, Canada, France, and the United States. But the idea went nowhere due to a lack of funds. In 1997, when Lukashenko launched a campaign to resettle Belarusians back to their abandoned homes in Chernobyl-affected areas, government officials again floated the idea of nuclear plant construction, claiming that there wasn't an alternative to the cost-effectiveness of nuclear energy. After a public outcry, the president was forced to concede that purchasing energy from Belarus' neighbors was a more affordable option for the cash-strapped country and promised to conduct a public referendum before ever considering indigenous nuclear energy again. A year later, Lukashenko's government committed [in Russian] to focus on nuclear research instead of planning nuclear power plant construction on Belarusian territory for the next decade--thus, agreeing to a moratorium until 2008.

But that commitment didn't last long. In 2003, Lukashenko declared that nuclear energy would ensure the country's energy independence and safeguard its national security. Although he still avoided any serious talk of construction plans, he proclaimed (perhaps wishfully) that the Belarusian people had overcome their post-Chernobyl "psychological barrier." In November 2007, he got more serious, authorizing preparatory work for nuclear construction following a timetable laid out by the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences. Despite earlier promises to hold a referendum, in January, Lukashenko announced [in Russian] that the country would move forward with construction of a nuclear power plant, without public input.

Aside from energy independence, Lukashenko's argument for nuclear power includes a myriad of benefits for Belarus--ranging from promises of more than 2,000 jobs to profits from selling nuclear know-how. His public-relations campaign has centered on the idea that the reactors would be safer than those of Belarus' heavily nuclear-reliant neighbors--Ukraine, Lithuania, and Russia.

To that end, Minsk has touted the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) support in selecting a site, strengthening the country's nuclear regulatory system, assisting in the drafting of nuclear energy legislation, and training specialists for future nuclear-related jobs. In addition, recent Belarusian legislation governing nuclear energy, hastily passed by the House of Representatives on June 24, included widely publicized provisions for transparency and assurances of "the priority of life and health protection of the present and future generations over all other aspects of the activity relating to the use of nuclear energy."

Keeping Russia at arm's length

Minsk's quest for a nuclear plant mimics the energy "diversification" trends in other European countries, many of which are anxious about overreliance on Russia for supplies of natural gas. The thinking [see p. 2] in Belarus, which can only fill 15 percent of its energy needs indigenously, is that a "lack of domestic power and fuel resources and [a] critically high share of imported natural gas [present] threats to energy security." Unlike Eastern European countries in a similar energy predicament, Lukashenko's fierce nationalism prevents Belarus from engaging with the European Union or United States. Further, Minsk is effectively "married" to Moscow, having consented in 2000 to military and economic integration with Russia. Thus, on the face of it, Minsk's energy "diversification" options appear to be limited.

Russia's Atomstroyexport is the seemingly logical choice for a strategic nuclear partner. But Lukashenko has said that he anticipates bids on the project (perhaps naively or disingenuously) from France's AREVA and Japan's Toshiba-Westinghouse--even though for Toshiba, cooperation would require U.S. consent due to the headquartering of its Westinghouse arm in the United States. Minsk has also argued that Atomstroyexport won't necessarily be the favorite in the selection process. Part of the problem is that a contract with Russia would include a spent fuel take-back arrangement, further tethering Minsk to Moscow. Instead, Belarusian officials have noted that even if a Russian design is selected, Minsk may go elsewhere for enriched uranium fuel. Belarus hasn't joined the Russian International Uranium Enrichment Center at Angarsk, Siberia, a joint venture between Kazakhstan and Russia, and Minsk has reportedly explored expanding its back-end cooperation with Sweden, currently limited to management of spent fuel from its nuclear research reactors.

But until a funding source is located for Lukashenko's nuclear plant, the project can't move forward. Aside from Russia's promise to provide credit, Lithuania, Iran, and Kazakhstan have also reportedly expressed preliminary interest in financing the plant or working on joint projects. In addition, Belarusian authorities have expressed interest in cooperating with China and India on peaceful nuclear energy. But Belarus seems committed to going forward alone; for example, it hasn't expanded its cooperation with neighboring Ukraine or joined with Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland in their planned Baltic nuclear power plant. Lukashenko has said his country would instead be interested in talking to international institutions and private individuals to pay for the project. But it's unclear what he has in mind since the ownership of any nuclear plant in Belarus would be limited to the state.

Public opinion on the peaceful atom

Although Lukashenko insists that the Belarusian public has overcome its nuclear fear, commonly known in the Chernobyl-affected region as "radiophobia," he has moved forward without his much touted and promised public referendum. While he campaigns with the statement "if we ask the people, they will support us," his own officials have admitted that the topic is still sensitive due to "the Chernobyl syndrome." Two decades after the accident, the majority of the Belarusian people still don't want nuclear power--28.3 percent approved of the nuclear plant project and 46.7 percent disapproved, according to a 2005 country-wide government poll.

Yet, aside from being the subject of polls, the Belarusian public has little direct input in the country's nuclear fate. In fact, the country doesn't have an effectively organized anti-nuclear movement that could translate negative public opinion into action against the nuclear project. Although the annual "Chernobyl Way" march still attracts thousands of participants, its numbers have decreased since 1996 when 50,000 marched in Minsk, and the message has become more "anti-Lukashenko" than anti-nuclear. On April 26, only 2,000 people gathered to mark Chernobyl's twenty-second anniversary and call for additional financial support for the disaster's victims.

To date, only small grassroots efforts are evidence of the resistance to the country's so-called "nuclear destiny." In January 2008, one protestant pastor in the eastern Mogilyov province, one of the regions most affected by Chernobyl, made news for seeking signatures on a petition against the nuclear project. As of June, other petition drives close to the proposed nuclear site in Kukshinovskaya have collected little more than 2,500 signatures.

Nor has the organized political opposition been able to resolve its position among itself. While representatives of the Green Party and other pro-environment movements in Belarus have declared themselves staunchly anti-nuclear, the organized political opposition hasn't been able to settle on one position. Members of the mainstream Belarusian People's Front have come out pro-nuclear so long as Belarusian reactors are of Western design rather than Russian. Representatives of the marginal United Civil Party have argued against the nuclear plant proclaiming, "Cheap electricity generated by nuclear plants [is] a myth." Meanwhile, associates of former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich claim that a more cost-effective plan would be to build a reactor at Ukraine's plant in Rivne, and Milinkevich himself has said he will lead a campaign against the nuclear project this fall. But for the time being, the mixed messages within the opposition make its arguments easy to marginalize.

That said, debate over the issue from within the country's scientific community shows more promise of raising the public's awareness. Although the nuclear project was initiated with the participation of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences, some scientists argue that more data regarding the cost-effectiveness of nuclear versus renewable energy and nuclear waste is still necessary. Others claim that while nuclear energy may be good for the country, it could cause Belarus to become even more dependent on Moscow. To gain traction for their ideas, the scientists have organized a Nuclear Free Belarus movement along with members of the political opposition and have called for a discussion akin to the dialogue that set the stage for the 1998 nuclear construction moratorium.

In response, Lukashenko has blasted both the political and scientific opposition for seeking to score political points at the expense of the economic well-being of the Belarusian people. Government officials have also sought to reassure the Belarusian public that the country won't be so focused by the nuclear project that it will no longer invest in other energy resources such as biofuels.

Oddly, although Lukashenko could move forward with his nuclear agenda without public consent, his government has carefully monitored public opinion on the issue. Data from the 2005 poll on the issue [see previously cited analysis] has given the government clues about how to tailor its message in order to preempt and co-opt potential public opposition. Therefore, it's no surprise that the government has repeatedly stressed IAEA support for the project--polling indicates that the Belarusian public trusts the information provided by the agency. Similarly, as polls have indicated that the public trusts scientists, Lukashenko has sought to actively (and bitterly) rebut anti-nuclear comments from Belarusian scientists opposed to his nuclear plans.

Lukashenko will continue to promote his nuclear vision for the country until the Belarusian people translate their anti-nuclear feelings into an organized, widespread opposition. A unified message from the country's scientific community and the political opposition would go a long way to bolstering an otherwise weak public debate on whether Belarus should undertake this costly, multi-year nuclear project.