Impression of the double VVER-1200/392M (AES-2006) reactors for at Russia's Novovoronezh Nuclear Power Plant II, almost identical to the reactors planned for Ostrovets, Belarus. Photo: Rosenergoatom via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY).
Thirty years after Chernobyl, Belarus goes nuclear
25th April 2016
Belarus may have taken the brunt of the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, writes Kieran Cooke. But now it's pushing ahead with its own nuclear power station at Ostrovets - just 50km from Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, where the project is causing widespread public concern.
It is unclear how the population of Belarus - some of whom are still suffering health problems caused by the Chernobyl explosion - feel about Ostrovets. Belarus is tightly controlled by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, in power for the last 21 years.
Nuclear fall-out, like carbon dioxide and other climate-changing greenhouse gases, does not respect national borders.
On 26th April 1986 an explosion at the Chernobyl power plant, in Ukraine but only a few kilometres from the southern border of Belarus, sent clouds of radioactive dust into the atmosphere.
It's estimated that as much as 70% of the fall-out from what rates as the world's worst nuclear accident fell on Belarus, affecting hundreds of thousands of people.
Now, 30 years later, Belarus itself is going nuclear - building its own huge 2,400 MW nuclear power plant at Ostrovets in the north-west of the country, close to the border with Lithuania.
The first power unit at Ostrovets is due to start operations in late 2018. More than 6,000 people are working at the kilometre-square site, building cooling towers and giant containment vessels which will enclose the nuclear reactor at the heart of the plant.
Nina Rybik, who was born in the southern Belarus village of Ulusy, a few kilometres from the Chernobyl plant, remembers the time before the accident well. And through a strange twist of fate, she now finds herself working equally close to the new plant at Ostrovets. Her mother died a few years ago; her father lives with her.
"My children and I had already moved away from the area, but my parents had to leave soon after the explosion, and could not go back there to live", she recalls. "Now we are allowed to go there only once a year, to visit our ancestors' graves. Our old house is falling down, our lands are useless now. It is all so sad."
'Going critical' in 2018
Nuclear power enthusiasts say building plants like Ostrovets is a safe way of securing energy supplies without causing a further build-up of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.
Vladimir Gorin, deputy chief engineer at the plant, told one of the first media groups to visit that, while the reactor at Chernobyl had no outer containment shell, Ostrovets will have a double wall made of thick steel and concrete. Officials say the whole containment structure will be further secured by large quantities of iron bands.
"Our design and construction methods are among the safest in the world", said Gorin. "We follow all international standards and checks at every stage of building. We are proud to have such a plant in Belarus."
But opponents insist that no matter how strict the safety regulations, catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl are always possible. They also say the whole issue of storing nuclear waste - radioactive for generations - has still not been tackled, and that the costs of nuclear power are spiralling out of control.
At present Belarus imports more than 80% of its primary energy, mostly from Russia. One of the main reasons cited by Minsk for the construction of Ostrovets is to lessen its dependence on Moscow for energy supplies.
However Ostrovets has been designed and built by Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company, which will also be in charge of operating the plant. Russia will also be responsible for disposing of the nuclear waste produced at the plant.
60% favour Ostrovets nuclear plant, says government
Rubyk is among those supporting the new nuclear plant. "At first we felt strange, living once again so close to a nuclear site", she said. "But then I think that accidents can't happen twice. I'm confident that the new plant will be safe - Belarus needs energy, and nuclear power is the only way to guarantee that."
However it is unclear how the 9 million population of Belarus - some of whom are still suffering health problems caused by the Chernobyl explosion - feel about Ostrovets. Belarus is tightly controlled by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, in power for the last 21 years.
In a 'Chernobyl day' speech in 2008 (26th April) Lukashenko even went so far as to denounce opponents of Ostrovets as "enemies of the state".
Officials at Ostrovets say a poll carried out by a government-run institute found that more than 60% were in favour of the plant. But Irina Sukhy of the Green Network, a Belarus environment non-governmental organisation, says no proper public hearings have been held on Ostrovets.
Moreover those who raised questions about the plant have been harassed and arrested. Among them is Belarus journalist Tatyana Novikova - also an environmental campaigner with the environmental NGO Ecohome and an outspoken opponent of the nuclear plant - who was detained by security services on 18th July 2012.
Andrey Ozharovskiy, a Russian nuclear expert, was also arrested on the same date. Both were intending to deliver a letter of protest to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, then on a visit to Minsk. But instead they were imprisoned in insanitary conditions for several days. Ozharovskiy was later deported and banned from entering Belarus for ten years.
Vilnius at risk from any accident
In neighbouring Lithuania - a member of the European Union (EU) - there's no doubt which way public opinion is leaning. With Ostrovets less than 50 kilometres from Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, opposition is strong, and the government has raised strong objections to the plant.
Vitalijus Auglys, an official at Lithuania's Ministry of Environment, says Belarus has not fully answered questions about the safety of the Ostrovets plant and is in contravention of international conventions on building nuclear facilities - accusations the government in Minsk denies.
In addition flexRISK, an Austrian research team, have analysed the potential effects of a severe accident at one the Ostrovets reactors. They identified that Cesium-137 pollution could force the evacuation of the population within 300 kilometres of the plant - taking in much of Lithuania including Vilnius.
Lithuania, as part of its 2004 accession agreement with the EU, agreed to close its own Ignalina nuclear facility, a plant similar in design to Chernobyl. Officials at Ignalina say decommissioning at the plant will take till 2037 to complete and will cost about €3 billion.
But despite its trenchant protests about Ostrovets, the Lithuanian government has not fully ruled out constructing another, more modern, nuclear facility on the same site.
Kieran Cooke writes for Climate News Network, where this article was originally published.
Also on The Ecologist: 'Belarus - fighting nuclear power in the shadow of Chernobyl' by Chris Garrard.
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