Towards a Nuclear Belarus

Sketch of downtown Minsk, Belarus, by the author in pencil and Copic markers.

Belarus is a nation that probably doesn’t cross many people’s minds every day unless they have some direct connection to the country, live in neighboring Poland, or are like myself in the field of Slavic studies. However, for nuclear-watchers, some interesting things are afoot in Belarus right now. Even when it was still a part of the USSR, Belarus had plans to construct a nuclear power plant and those plans were mothballed after the Chernobyl disaster for understandable reasons as a wave of fear swept Belarus and other nations that were close enough to Chernobyl to actual suffer some direct effects of that disaster. When Belarus became independent in 1992, the idea of a native nuclear power plant was back in play, but quickly was objected to by many elected officials who  were concerned about safety, the spectre of Chernobyl, and also the high costs of such a project on an economy that was only starting to improve after years of neglect under the Soviet system. President Alexander Lukashenko however expressed favor—if mixed with some caution—for the plant and then along came the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, the Russian-Belarusian energy dispute of 2007. What was that about? Gazprom, the Russian state-owned oil and gas giant, ships a vast amount of its products via pipeline to central Europe, to nations like the Czech Republic, where the primary use is winter-time heating. That pipeline runs from Russia through Belarus and because of this situation and the traditional relationship under Soviet times between Belarus and Russia, Gazprom has always sold its wares to Belarus for a fair amount less than it does to central Europe. In 2007, for a variety of reasons, it increased its prices to Belarus at a time when Belarus was also increasing demand. Perhaps Gazprom felt it had a captive market, but it was wrong: as they say in Russian, “Нашла́ коса́ на ка́мень”, or “a scythe hit a stone”. The scythe, of course, being Gazprom which is known for its corporate power, political favor, and agency in setting the rules as it sees fit and the stone being President Lukashenko, a man called “the last real dictator in Europe” and, love him or hate him, a nationalist who makes Vladimir Putin look like a sweet little puppy in contrast. 

Myself, I’m  not a fan overall of Mr. Lukashenko. He runs a government that looks for all the world like Stalin’s Soviet Union, complete with his own cult of personality, little room for independence of political thought, and a state-controlled media. Thus, he embodies many of the ideals the West has always felt were worst about the USSR and he’s made little in the way of promises—or even voiced any desire—to change his ways and encourage greater openess and democracy. However, what he did when it came to the 2007 energy dispute is something I much admire and feel we all—especially those of us in the USA—should study and consider in depth. Lukashenko realized that Gazprom pretty much had Belarus by the ears and that despite all the effort made in his nation to be independent from Russia, they were fully under Gazprom’s palm when it came to essential energy supplies. 2007 could well be only a sign of worse things to come, and when they could come would rest fully on the moodswings of Gazprom. This is when Lukashenko decided to go ahead and build a nuclear power plant. Two Russian-made VVER-1200 reactors with a combined generating capacity of 2400 MW would be constructed at one site with the option of adding two more reactors of (most probably) the same design in the near future. The target date for the start-up of the first reactor would be 2016-17.

Some Belarusian politicians and scientists were upset that Russian-built technologies would be used, given that there is a strong anti-Russian popular opinion in Belarus to the point that when the nation gained its independence from the Soviet Union, one of the first actions it took was to restore the Belarusian language—a measure that however well-meaning caused serious problems with education and international business relations. While the Baltic Soviet republics were crucial to industry and trade, Belarus was often neglected by Moscow and not provided with the favor and benefits that the Baltic states obtained. Therefore, the concept of placing a major national project in Russian hands and seeing a serious investment go into Russian coffers did not sit well with many in the Belarusian leadership. President Lukashenko, however, contended that few other options were realistic. Iran was considered as one route and that in itself should be of interest to the American nuclear industry: Do we want Iran any further involved in nuclear affairs if we can help it? Do we want Iran to position itself as a viable contender in peaceful uses of nuclear technologies when we fear it is developing nuclear weapons under the guise of peaceful applications? Thus far, most technological support—and we must presume, most actual technology including the reactors—is coming from Russia via Atomstroyexpoert, the state-owned nuclear technology export/development group. Belnipienergoprom is the Belarusian state-owned company that in turn is running the project overall including all site-specific research and design aspects. 

A few thoughts on Belarus, its nuclear plant, and its energy future:

—Lukashenko may be a strongman straight from a James Bond film—rich, all-powerful in his nation, greedy, and unwilling to allow for much of a political opposition—but aside from his heavy-handed approach to the media and, like Putin, his opposition to gay rights and fear of ethnic minorities gaining social standing, he has seemed to do what’s needed for his people as a whole. I’m not going to get into what political stance the US should take on him overall: the human rights issues are important, but not the aspect most germane to the topic at hand. Should the US and US-based nuclear industry be in a position to offer help and to do business with Belarus? I would certainly say we should. Lukashenko believes in a strong, native, Belarusian state. This means that he is very wary of Islamic nations and their influence—even moreso perhaps than he’s wary of Russian influence. Whatever he does with nuclear technology, it will not support in any capacity terrorism. Nor would he have any real use for nuclear weapons: who would he attack, Russia? That would be absurd. Would he invade Poland? Also not going to happen. Too often, Belarus is talked about as a facist state and thereby dangerous, but regardless of internal politics, its only clear need and application for nuclear technologies is peaceful. It would be better by far to see this nation, as it starts off on its nuclear journey, to forge partnerships with the US and other trusted western European nations instead of the likes of Iran. 

—Belarus took a stand it should have taken years ago, and could have if it wasn’t for ungrounded fears of the dangers of having a nuclear plant. The real, vital, danger was Gazprom and how a state that while not isolationist, is fairly cloistered in many ways, still was left at the mercy of an outside energy supplier. The nuclear plant to be built at Astravet is the first step in breaking off the yoke of Gazprom and Russia.

—Belarus welcomes foreign investment and business. Granted, there is much to desire in many of the internal policies and the lack of freedom of the press is to me very disturbing, but there are unique advantages to Belarus, including a highly-educated workforce and very good public safety. Minsk is considered one of the safest cities in the entire world and crime is almost unheard of across the nation. Aside from the political climate, the other thing wanting about Belarus though is its capacity to supply energy to industry. Moreover, the geographical location of Belarus means it could supply finished consumer or industrial goods to both Russia and central Europe. That’s not a bad place to have your factories, really. The problem mainly is one of energy. Nuclear could change that. 

—Yelena Mironova, the director of planning for the new plant (and probably of all immediate future plants), has expressed an openess and interest in various reactor technologies, including high-temperature gas-cooled reactors. I’ve not spoken with her myself, but Russian friends have described her as a bright and innovative project leader with both a robust nuclear physics and software engineering background. While I cannot confirm it, the rumor is that she is rather frustrated by the lack of options the Russians are offering for plant design and reactor choices. Clearly sounds like a person who realizes the unique position of her nation in choosing future technologies and building every aspect of its nuclear power industry from scratch. And also, by extension, she sounds like she’s petty aware of the vital need in making the best choices. She probably doesn’t want a Fort Saint Vrain on here hands in ten years.

So Belarus: we have a nation that in many ways is imperfect and not where we’d look for innovation yet exactly where we may find just that. And we may see some exciting things happen there before they happen in the US, even. Certainly one to watch.

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Of related interest is this article published today at Russia Behind the Headlines, a leading English-language news website based out of Moscow, which details the growth of the Russian nuclear power industry in the global export market:

http://rbth.ru/science_and_tech/2013/07/14/russian_nuclear_technology_taking_root_in_the_eu_28029.html

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