For the first 29 years of the country’s independence, nuclear power was not used in Belarus. It was not until 7 November 2020, the anniversary of the October Revolution, that the first nuclear power plant was inaugurated in Ostrovets, close to the border with Lithuania.
This analysis is part of our dossier "Nuclear Power in Europe: 35 Years After the Chernobyl Disaster".
Radioactivity – a side issue
Evening. Snow lies on the city streets, but lights shine in a handful of windows. There are almost no cars to be seen. The city is called Chernobyl and it is located in the limitation zone around the site of the disaster.
The limitation zone was set in place after the Soviet leadership ordered tests to be conducted in the Ukrainian nuclear power plant and the reactor exploded in the process. The wind carried many of the radioactive particles generated in the explosion towards Belarus. 35% settled on an area covering almost exactly a quarter of Belarusian territory. The authorities later declared the area to be safe once more – a claim disputed by critics – on the basis of what they described as strict measurements and checks.
Some inhabitants were resettled from the danger zone, but more than a million people still live on the blighted territories to this day, the Ministry of Emergency Situations confirmed again in 2020.
These days, “Chernobyl” has been shifted to the “sidelines of public and scientific interest”, as Ales Smaljantschuk, scientific head of the Belarusian Oral History Archive put it at a conference in Minsk to mark a previous anniversary of the disaster.
Even the victims have still not fully processed the disaster, let alone the rest of the population, the Belarusian historians believe.
The legacy of the disaster continues to this day to influence the lived reality of the people, but there is “little understanding of this in the social and humanitarian collective memory”, explains sociologist and coordinator of the “Flying University”, Tatjana Wodolaschskaja. The annual “Chernobyl March” in Minsk is an attempt to change this, but this event has become smaller each year.
The two protected areas in the stricken regions on the territories of Ukraine and Belarus are shrouded in myth.
“The restricted area has become mythologised. A forgotten territory, contaminated by radioactivity, an area of unseen death”, Denis Vishnevsky, Head of the Ecology Department of the Chernobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve, wrote on the Internet. “It is a world without people”.
This natural wilderness is home to the usual wildlife as well as rarer animals such as wolves, lynxes, bisons, bears and Przewalski’s horse. “Nature is in a better state there than it is in other protected areas”, says Arkadiy Skuratowicz, a scientist at the Institute of Experimental Botany of the Belarusian Academy of Science.
A river known by locals as “Amazonas” because of its naturalness flows through the region. Its real name is Pripyat and it meanders through the restricted area around the former NPP.
Six years ago, organisations based in Ukraine attempted to report more about the unique natural situation, Vishnevsky explains. “But people are only interested in mutants”.
How much is the new nuclear power plant costing?
Belarus is still paying the price of the Chernobyl disaster. For the period 1986 to 2016 alone, costs have been estimated at 22-30 billion US dollars. The total damage caused by the disaster has been put at 235 billion US dollars, the Institute of Economics of the Belarusian Academy of Science reported on the occasion of the 30th anniversary.
These exorbitant figures could be why the 10 billion US dollar Russian credit to build the two new reactors seems like a bargain to the Belarusian government, when it awarded the contract to the Russian supplier in 2011.
There were several reasons for the decision. At that time, Belarus was already using Russian credit to stimulate economic development. According to an investigation by the national bank’s “banking gazette”, debt growth outstripped domestic economic growth between 1998 and 2009. In July 2009, debt represented 31.5% of gross domestic product and Russia was the biggest creditor, with a share of more than 50%, followed by the International Monetary Fund with 24.4%.
“For Belarus, then in recession, long-term debt was a way of securing resources for domestic economic development”, explains Irina Schuk, one of the authors of the study and Chair of International Economics at the Belarus State Economic University (BSEU).
There are many other reasons. “In purely practical terms, nobody but the Russian Federation could completely pre-finance a construction project of this kind”, says Tatjana Manyonok, energy and chemical industry expert. “It’s fairly obvious: if a company from any other country had won the construction contract, problems with supply other sources of energy, such as oil and gas, would have been possible; there are plenty of precedents. Falling out with Russia would be a serious problem”.
The credit package will cover 90% of the construction costs. The first two reactor blocks went live in November, but the total price tag of the project is still unknown. It is a “commercial secret”, according to President Lukashenko himself.
Data are, however, available from the Russian Ministry of Finance. On 1 September 2020, i.e. two months before commissioning, around half of the total credit amount, 4.5 billion US dollars, was called in. In total, the Ministry reports, an overspend to date of 6 billion US dollars is anticipated, according to a budget memo on the credit. No further costs have been taken into account in this figure, however.
According to expert estimates, this credit volume is extremely high for Belarusian circumstances. The director of the Russian Institute for Energy and Finance, Bulat Nigmatulin, a previous Deputy Russian Minister for Nuclear Energy, comments:
“If, at an interest rate of 3.3%, 13-14 billion US dollars has to be paid back over 25 years, that is at least 500 million a year, which represents a massive drain on the Belarusian economy. It already has commitments of 1.5 billion a year for other credit repayments and now there is another half a billion on top – a serious burden that could plunge an already poor country into a Russian economic protectorate”.
Belarus was scheduled to start paying back the loan in April 2021, but the repayment dates were recently pushed back by two years.
What benefit is nuclear power to the country?
According to Tatjana Manyonok, it is too early to assess how beneficial nuclear power will be to Belarus.
“Proponents of the new nuclear power plant hold two assumptions: the NPP will help to reduce energy dependency on the Russian Federation and will also allow the country to increase its energy exports”.
Will it? As regards energy dependency, that is currently unclear. It is anticipated that the two reactor blocks will replace 4.5 billion m³ of natural gas. In total, Belarus consumes around 20 billion. It will take a year for any differences to become apparent.
The second question, that of exports of nuclear energy, is more problematic.
“The Baltic states are determined to establish high barriers for electricity exports from Belarus into the EU”, Tatjana explains. She refers to the recent resolution of the European Parliament, which on 11 February 2021 assessed the Belarusian NPP as a risk to the EU, as it does not meet the usual safety standards.
There are many reports of sales of electricity to Lithuania or Ukraine, but this does not fundamentally resolve the export issue.
“There are hopes of a common energy market getting off the ground in the Eurasian Economic Community in 2025. Theoretically, Belarus would then be able to sell to the Russian market as well, but that would call for a reform of the energy system, which is hardly likely to appeal to the current government”, Tatjana explains. “It is a closed circle and how would this break it open? I don’t think the government itself knows, although it declares publicly that the NPP will produce electricity predominantly for the home market”.
When both reactors are switched on, the country will have an energy surplus. Belarus consumes around 36-37 billion kilowatt-hours (kW/h) of electricity a year and the two blocks alone will generate 42% of this amount.
There are attempts to increase power input: a raft of plans to increase consumption have been signed off, incentives for electric heating systems in buildings, e-mobility and much more. However, this will only call for around 400 million kW/h, Tatjana reveals.
Another example is the growth in industrial consumption, which is expected to stand at 2.7 billion kW/h by 2025. But even that is a drop in the ocean if the blocks generate 18.5 billion kW/h.
“And even that requirement could fall by the wayside, looking at current risks”, Tatjana adds.
She is referring to the political and economic situation of the country. This has to do not only with coronavirus and its negative consequences for the economy, but also Western sanctions and the ongoing political crisis in the country since the elections of August 2020.
The energy suppliers will have to balance out energy production from domestic sources. “The government says that the production capacities of the large gas-fired power stations will not be affected, but ultimately, there will not be anything left over for them”, Tatjana predicts.
The changes will also impact upon renewable energies, which have received some development support in recent years. Nuclear power will henceforth take priority in the grid and renewables will have to yield to them.
What do the people think of the NPP and radioactivity?
Previously, government figures have always responded to the question of the nuclear power plant by claiming that it will bring down electricity prices for the economy and households.
“They have always framed it like this to the people: do you agree with the NPP, it will be an absolute boon for you, your electricity is going to be cheaper. But nobody is talking about that anymore. At New Year, prices actually went up and will continue to do so”, says Nikolaj Ulasewicz, a resident and opponent of nuclear power.
This is confirmed by Pavel Gorbunov, expert for the Centre for Environmental Solutions and co-author of the 2018 “Energy [r]evolution for Belarus” study by the organisation “Ekodom”. Over the period 2018-2020, energy production in the gas-fired power plants cost 4.01 cents per kW/h. The production costs of the NPP blocks, on the other hand, are 9.9-13.2 cents per KW/h, meaning that electricity price increases are far more likely than the reverse.
Now, however, the NPP is ready and will begin regular production in May. Nikolai Ulasewitsch had hoped to turn the authorities’ promises to account:
“A few people wanted to switch to electrical heating, I was one of them. But the competent authority told us that the available output was not enough for everyone who had expressed an interest. Even though I was one of the first, there was already none left for me. And later, they stopped contacting anybody”.
Where those in favour of the NPP talk of the economic benefits, critics talk of the safety risks. The major points of criticism are the unsuitable location and insufficient involvement of the public, which is also true for the neighbouring countries, in breach of the Aarhus Convention on access to environmental information.
The reactor container was damaged twice during transportation. When workers died or other incidents occurred at the construction site, there was often a long delay before this was made public. Additionally, the construction process has led to conflicts with the neighbouring Lithuania, for instance due to insufficient regard for the results of the stress test of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG).
Finally, during the reactor’s test runs, there were a number of technical issues, such as defective transformers that burst into flames. “When four incidents had occurred but no lessons had been learnt from them, it is highly likely that there were discussions about safety at a local level. But even so, people seem to feel that they can’t change anything. That is the essential problem of people”, says local activist Nikolaj Ulasewicz.
The state media sometimes diagnose critics as suffering from radiophobia, due to their experiences following the Chernobyl disaster. The overseas diaspora calls it something else. In December 2020, almost 1000 signatures were gathered in protest against the NPP, which they dubbed a dangerous means of fulfilling the political ambitions of President Alexander Lukashenko.
As long ago as 2009, sections of civil society took position against the NPP project, including “Ekodom” and the Belarusian Green Party, which launched the anti-nuclear campaign.
“We are standing up for development without nuclear power, as we consider nuclear energy and the production of nuclear weapons to be an unacceptable danger to humanity”, the campaign website reads (our translation).
By initiative of the campaign and other partners, round tables have been held, civil society expert reports on the NPP project and the results of the stress test have been drafted and the annual “Chernobyl March” organised.
“There are many different opinions on the NPP. Some time ago, various opposition parties were against a Russian NPP, but considered that fundamentally, there were benefits to Belarus from using nuclear power. We succeeded in pinpointing the dangers and lack of benefits of this NPP project to our country – so they decided to take part in the demonstrations under the banner of ‘Reforms first – then NPP”, says Irina Sukhi, chair of the Association “Ekodom”.
“The main problem, however, is still that the NPP makes no sense economically whilst representing a threat to the environment”, stresses Tatjana Novikova, coordinator of the Belarusian anti-nuclear campaign. “The country doesn’t need the NPP – it will benefit one individual plus Russia”.
This article was first published in German on boell.de.