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What to expect from the new Belarusian nuclear power plant

Belarus’s new Astravets Nuclear Power Plant is set to begin operations next year. Many have already raised concerns regarding the plant’s safety and its potential geopolitical effects. Going beyond the ominous headlines and pessimistic outlooks, we look into what to expect from this latest development.

July 27, 2020 - Darya Podgoretskaya - Articles and Commentary

Model of the Belarusian Nuclear power plant in the Museum of Modern Belarusian Statehood in Minsk. Photo: Denis Nosov. wikimedia.org

On a global scale, the first half of 2020 has been eventful to say the least. As a result, it is no wonder that yet another rather important development in the region has failed to attract interest from major news outlets. This is despite Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda’s recent allusion in a recent Instagram post to nothing less than a potential nuclear catastrophe in the heart of Europe. This worrying statement was motivated ultimately by the recent construction of the Astravets Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in neighboring Belarus. As the station is set to open this July [postponed until next year – editors note], politicians, scientists, and citizens alike have raised questions over its safety and strategic implications. Due to this, it might be about time to take a closer look at the plant and what it means for Belarus and the rest of Europe.

The complicated history of Astravets

The history of the Astravets NPP goes back almost four decades. The idea of constructing a nuclear power plant on Belarusian soil was conceived in the early 1980s. This 1000 megawatt electrical (MWe) VVER reactor outside of Minsk was meant to rival that of the neighboring Chernobyl facility. Of course, the Ukrainian operation would suffer from an infamous explosion soon after these plans were made. Needless to say, constructing a new nuclear power plant after April 26th 1986 was inconceivable.

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it a multitude of issues for independent Belarus. One of these pressing issues was domestic energy production, or rather, the lack thereof. Belarusian internal production only covered 10 per cent of its needs in the early 1990s. For the time being, Russia continued to be the main energy exporter for the country. Inevitably, however, Russian fuel prices began to approach wider international levels. Belarusian industry suffered considerable damage from this price increase while external debt quickly grew.

Belarus would soon announce plans to construct a nuclear power plant by 2005 in its desperation to diversify its energy sources and break the harmful dependency. However, progress was severely affected by a dire economic situation. Even by 1996, the NPP was largely just an ambitious dream; no decisions had been taken regarding the reactor’s type, site or financing. Besides, relations with Russia soon warmed as Moscow agreed to deliver crude oil at its domestic prices. While there was still a pressing need for energy diversification, Lukashenka found cheap Russian energy hard to resist. Thus, in 1999 Belarus signed a ten-year moratorium on nuclear energy and completely halted efforts to build the plant.

It would only be eight years before the Belarusian NPP project would be the subject of renewed interest. After the 2007 Russia-Belarus energy disputes, it became apparent that diversification was indeed necessary. To ensure energy security, Lukashenka finally renewed construction efforts. A decree formalising the project was signed in January 2008 and Rosatom, a Russian company, was contracted to construct the NPP.

Is the NPP safe?

Unsurprisingly, the decision to commit fully to the plant’s construction resulted in a considerable public outcry. With the memories of the 1986 tragedy still fresh, the public quickly termed Astravets the “New Chernobyl”. Belarusian citizens were not the only ones protesting the NPP – neighboring countries were also very much involved. The 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima then further harmed the reputation of nuclear energy. The impact of this catastrophe was so severe that many European Union states turned against nuclear energy. This resulted in the closing of multiple nuclear facilities, including the Ignalina NPP in Lithuania. Naturally, Belarus’s continued commitment to construct a new NPP amidst mass closures across the the continent began to worry its closest neighbors. Lithuania was particularly alarmed by the station’s proximity to Vilnius; less than an hour drive away from the capital. Subsequently, any issues related to the Astravets NPP would inevitably affect the country. Lithuania has thus labeled Astravets as dangerous and, in the words of the Lithuanian Energy Minister, a direct “threat to our national security, public health, and environment”.

Lithuania does seem to be justified in its fears surrounding Belarus’s construction of the Astravets NPP. Multiple safety concerns do indeed surround nuclear energy. For one, all nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste. Waste disposal is a problem and, if done incorrectly, can cause nuclear leaks and groundwater contamination. Of course, another concern is the possibility of a disastrous incident. Nevertheless, such concerns are largely exaggerated. Waste disposal is no longer a critical issue. While 90 per cent of the fuel is recyclable, concrete and steel storage flasks prevent any leakages and safely store the waste for hundreds of years. Belarus adopted a sophisticated programme related to managing nuclear waste based on IAEA principles in 2015. Second, whilst nuclear disasters remain a potential threat, it is clear that there have not been that many incidents. Chernobyl and Fukushima both occurred under outstanding circumstances that are unlikely to repeat in Belarus. Besides, Astravets operates a Pressurised Water Reactor. This is one of the safest designs on the market.

Lithuania, however, has gone beyond this general debate related to the safety of nuclear energy. Belarus’s concerned neighbor has claimed that there are multiple shortcomings related to the Astravets plant’s design and construction that make it unsafe. First, the plant is in a seismically active zone; an earthquake had been registered in the area in 1908. While the earthquake caused no physical damage, Lithuania claims the location of the plant is nevertheless questionable. Second, too many accidents occurred during the construction of the plant. In August 2016, for example, a reactor core fell from a height of 4 metres. In the best traditions of post-Soviet governance, this accident was kept secret for months. While the core was eventually replaced, it did cause concerns related to the competency of the construction team. Third, the nuclear watchdogs supervising the project have issued some concerning reports regarding the safety of the plant. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) reports have highlighted gaps in the Belarusian approach to waste disposal and nuclear safety standards.

Yet, ironically, the NPP has become safer and much more regulated precisely due to Lithuania’s concerns. First, while issues of seismic activity in the zone are based on a minor earthquake in 1908, the NPP nevertheless went through and successfully passed stress tests for earthquake and natural disaster resistance under EU expert supervision. At the same time, whilst the IAEA raised some issues during the early days of construction, the organisation’s most recent reports concluded that the plant was safe to operate. As to the quality of Rosatom’s work, it is unreasonable to claim that it will be somehow below European standards. For one, Rosatom takes careful steps to maintain the company’s reputation throughout the world. Their willingness to comply with all of the checks and international regulations only serves as a testament to that. Besides, Rosatom does employ world-leading nuclear experts.

Of course, we may still question how Belarus, a state that is not exactly famous for political transparency, would handle any potential issues related to the plant. This is especially true as the plant first enters operation, as some technical difficulties may arise that will need to be flagged and corrected. The silence over the 2016 accident, which resulted in the reactor core being stopped, only serves to show that Belarus is more likely to silence issues than openly admit to them. Yet, again, it appears that Belarus has opened itself up to international watchdogs and EU experts in an effort to soften criticism of the project. So, prejudices aside, we can reasonably conclude that the Astravets plant is safe.

The geopolitics of Astravets

While the plant may be safe to operate, the real question is whether it will really be of any strategic benefit to Belarus or its neighbors. The initial rationale behind the project was to lower dependency on Russian energy. Alongside a coal-fired plant and a hydropower station, the Astravets NPP was meant to bring reliance on Russian gas down to 55 per cent. Despite this, the NPP that was meant to break this link has actually strengthened it. Of course, Belarus contracted Russian companies to both construct and supply the plant. Atomstroyexport, a subsidiary of Rosatom tasked with the construction of Astravets, is essentially a state-owned monopoly tasked with promoting Russian influence abroad. The company has even been described as the “national champion” for nuclear energy by Vladimir Putin. This therefore raises the possibility that Moscow may attempt to gain more leverage over the country. In relation to nuclear energy exports, this has happened in other post-Soviet states. Minsk will also continue to rely on Rosatom experts for the training of workers and maintenance. On top of this, Belarus had to take out a 10 billion loan from Russia to build the NPP. Thus, it is estimated that Moscow finances 90 per cent of the project. While Belarus is on track to become more independent from Russian gas, it may become even more reliant on Russia overall because due to nuclear fuel demand, maintenance needs, and debt repayments.

Meanwhile, the Astravets power plant has significant geopolitical implications beyond the Belarus-Russia relationship. While the plant has only strenghtened the country’s dependency on Russia, the power plant has also pushed Belarus further away from its European neighbors. Lithuania and Poland have boycotted energy imports from the plant and have taken decisive steps to deconstruct power links with Belarus. This is of course troubling for Belarusian prospects on the world stage. Belarus has spoiled relations with its main sympathisers within the EU and remains as dependent on Russia as ever. On a more global scale, the plant promotes Russian influence in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. For example, Dalia Grybauskaite called the plant a “geopolitical project of Russia” designed to challenge Lithuania. The plant may flood markets with cheap electricity thus rendering Lithuania’s newly constructed liquified natural gas plant uncompetitive. Of course, these low prices were meant to ensure that Lithuania and other Baltic states would maintain their dependency on Russian energy. Yet this plan has not experienced much success. Lithuania ruled against buying up the energy and even began dismantling electricity infrastructure connected to Belarus. Meanwhile, Belarus is left with a large electricity surplus on top of a large debt and an increased dependency on Russia.

With all of these considerations in mind, we may reasonably conclude that Gitanas Nausėda’s ominous Instagram post was not particularly correct. The NPP is highly unlikely to result in a large-scale catastrophe. However, the geopolitical implications of the project are far more concerning. Initially designed to promote Russian influence over the neighborhood, the NPP did not entirely fulfill its purpose. In an ironic twist, Astravets’s construction has resulted in just the opposite.

Darya Podgoretskaya is a Politics, Sociology, and East European Studies student at University College London.

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