For almost 10 years, Belarus has been building its first nuclear power plant. The launch of the first reactor has been repeatedly postponed, last time to the beginning of 2020. But there are those in the country and beyond who are opposing the construction and after the Chernobyl disaster no longer believe in “the peaceful atom”.
"You see, the cooling tower (of the power plant – ed.) there? And there’s another one further, let's go, it will be more visible from there," says the pensioner Nikolai Ulasevich. We go beyond a small wooden fence out of his yard in the agricultural town of Vorniany, Grodno region, in northwestern Belarus. We climb higher and try to see the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant, the first nuclear power station in the country, located 6 kilometers away. But the December fog hides the station edifice, and we are unable to see anything.
NPP Instead of a Sanatorium
Ulasevich’s house is cool – it is heated irregularly, to save money. In one of the rooms, his wife Raisa is knitting and watching Russian television. We pass into a former children's, cramped room with a desk and a bunk-bed – now it’s an office. The shelves are filled with the "Small Atlas of the World", the large volume "Human Rights" and the Codes of the Republic of Belarus, as well as books on nuclear energy and stacks of paper.
Ulasevich – a geographer, politician and activist – gets his file on the Belarusian NPP. It consists of copies of requests to stop construction, letters with collected signatures, a pink marker was used to highlight his publications in the newspapers: "NPP in Belarus is a Gamble", "No to the new Chernobyl and Fukushima".
"From the point of view of geography, from the point of view of ecology, it is an absolutely criminal project," says Ulasevich.
Nikolai Ulasevich shows the materials he has collected on nuclear energy, Vornyany, Grodno region, Belarus, December 3, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
In 2005, with the submission of President Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus decided to develop nuclear power. Possible sites for the construction of the NPP were soon identified: two in the east - Kukshinovskaya and Krasnopolyanskaya, and one in the north - Verkhnedvinskaya.
“And then all of a sudden, Lukashenko says: ‘why don't we consider the option of building somewhere in the west of Belarus?’ I am a geographer myself and it seemed to pierce through me at that moment,” recalls Ulasevich. “The north of the district is the Sorochansky Lakes reservation, even further there is the Narochansky National Park. It’s actually the largest sanatorium and recreational zone in Belarus. It is not a nuclear power plant that needs to be built here, but some kind of health facilities.”
At the former Children's Room of Mykola's House in Vorniany, books on nuclear energy and documents with demands to stop construction of BelAUES, Belarus, December 3, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
However, in 2008, it was decided to build a nuclear power plant near Ostrovets, initially a reserve site near Ulasevich's house. As he says, at the intersection of geological fault lines.
Sergei Sevko, an employee of the information and public relations department of the Belarusian NPP, assures that this is the best place geologically:
"In the south, there are swamps, in the northeast – karst deposits with voids (because of which soils need to be strengthened – ed.). And here we have very dense soils and low groundwater. The platform stands on a large basalt slab like a tray – it is the safest, most durable one."
Ulasevich mentions an article in the Ostrovetskaya Pravda newspaper from 2008, where local officials argued that it was necessary to fight for the right to build a station in the Ostrovets district. In response, he wrote an article "Ostrovets NPP is a Crime," but he could only publish it in October in the opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya.
Around the same time, the geographer and six other activists launched a campaign against the construction of the plant: they issued a ballot paper and collected signatures.
Central entrance to the territory of the Belarusian NPP near Ostrovets, Belarus, December 2, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
“From the point of view of morality, it seems wrong to suddenly build a nuclear power plant in a republic so badly affected by the Chernobyl disaster (70% of the country's territory was contaminated with radionuclides).” says physicist Yuriy Voronezhtsev.
In the late 1980s, he served on a commission of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, which analyzed the causes of the Chernobyl disaster and evaluated the actions of officials after the accident. He later participated in the development of the first programs to deal with the aftermath of this catastrophe and drafted a bill on the Environmental Safety of Citizens.
In 2010, the Public Environmental Expert Committee, which included Vorozhentsev and other scientists, concluded that it was unacceptable to build a nuclear power plant in Belarus for environmental, technical and economic reasons.
"From the point of view of common sense, I can't explain it," says the physicist. "Maybe it’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union. A real country must have a powerful army – we have one. What else? A satellite should be launched. Well, we did launch one with the help of the Chinese. There should be a nuclear plant. Collective farms – we also have them. And a nuclear submarine. Well, there's the problem that there’s nowhere to navigate yet. Otherwise, we’d have one already.”
Following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, many countries, including Eastern European ones, abandoned nuclear power. According to the World Nuclear Association, as of December 2019, there are no working reactors in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Poland, Uzbekistan. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Latvia have opted out of nuclear power programs – NPPs have not appeared in these countries.
WNA Chart goes here
The Gomel region of Belarus, where Vorozhentsev lives, was particularly affected by the Chernobyl accident. In the 1980s, residents of the areas closest to the Ukrainian-Belarusian border were relocated to the cleanest regions of Belarus – exactly where a new station is being built today. Due to radionuclide contamination, about 264,000 hectares of land were excluded from agricultural use.
Now the land that was previously considered contaminated is being used again, and the liquidators of the accident are losing their compensation and benefits. Journalist Svetlana Stankevich and author of the photo project “Liquidation”, says that these are "related - the elimination of memory about a catastrophe ... Radiation has become commonplace... A sense of danger is dulled in everyday life, and some people stop believing in it."
The Chernobyl disaster happened almost 34 years ago, which is slightly more than the half-life of cesium-137, one of the main components of radioactive contamination contained in radioactive fallout and waste. However, there are still many consequences of the Chernobyl accident. According to Voronezhtsev, exported Belarusian products are still bearing the costs in public image. Moreover, oncological morbidity increased.
“I experienced it first-hand,” he tells us. “I have been undergoing treatment for the tenth straight year, 20 courses of chemotherapy, four operations. And it’s hard to find a family in our region that, to one degree or another, was not affected by this disaster. Although only an increase in thyroid cancer is officially recognized [as a consequence of Chernobyl].”
Physicist Yuriy Voronezhtsev thinks it is wrong - to build a nuclear power plant in the country, which suffered from the Chernobyl accident in 1986, Minsk, Belarus, December 1, 2019 Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
When the Belarusian authorities started talking about the construction of the plant, environmental organizations wanted to organize public hearings in accordance with the Aarhus Convention (the UN Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters).
"We have been told that Belarusians have radiophobia, so we must dispel this myth and convince everyone that we need to build a nuclear power plant," says ecologist Irina Sukhiy. She says that the chapters on radiation safety have disappeared from Belarusian textbooks, and the opposition rally "Chernobyl Way", which has been held since 1989, has virtually come to naught because of obstacles from the authorities and because people got used to this part of the country's history.
According to Sergey Sevko, the project of the Belarusian NPP is much more modern and safer than Chernobyl: "In Chernobyl, the human factor came into play, and here there are passive and active safety systems that rule out incorrect human actions – the station will simply switch off. In fact, it is a huge robot, monitored by trained people."
In addition, the reactors at the Chernobyl NPP lacked vessels:
"Roughly speaking, a pit was dug there. A concrete one, lined with graphite brick. Fuel assemblies were installed and covered with a lid. But we have a reactor vessel – it is made of high-strength steel up to 40 cm thick, airtight. It is higher than a five-story building. This is another obstacle to radiation."
View of one of the Belarussian NPP reactors, December 3, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
Vessels of Discord
In July 2016, a person working on the construction of the NPP told Ulasevich that the day before workers had dropped the reactor vessel from 4-meter height. At that time, Ulasevich was running for the legislature – there was a parliamentary campaign in Belarus. He says that during the meetings with voters, he was told about the incident by several other staff members at the plant. Then he wrote about it on Facebook. Soon the plant employees were banned from bringing phones with cameras.
According to Sevko, the vessel did not fall, but went down the slings and buried itself in the ground; it was inspected and no defects other than damage to the paintwork were found. However, they decided to replace it. An incident also occurred with the new vessel – it hit the electricity transmission support on the way to the station. But this time it was not replaced.
"And these are just the ones we heard about," says Irina Sukhiy, an ecologist at the NGO Ekodom (“Ecohouse”). "Construction is not transparent, the quality cannot be controlled by the public or experts. Working conditions also raise questions – people have died there and have been injured."
According to Sukhiy, they repeatedly tried to get the results of the inspections that Rosatom did – to find out what the violations were and how they were corrected – but all requests were unanswered.
Neighboring countries are also skeptical about its safety, especially Lithuania – the main opponent of the Belarusian NPP construction in Europe. The station is located 50 km from its capital – Vilnius, whilst Minsk is 130 km away.
Since 2016, Lithuania has been trying to persuade other EU countries to join the Belarusian electricity embargo. However, even neighboring Estonia and Latvia have not yet decided whether to buy electricity from Belarus.
In November 2019, amendments allowing Belarus to import electricity were approved by Ukraine. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, electricity from Belarus is one way of fighting energy monopolists in Ukraine. However, at the end of November 2019, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said at a meeting with Zelenskyy that "the construction culture at the nuclear power plant is unsatisfactory, to put it mildly." Zelenskyy replied that the "signal has been accepted."
A month earlier, Lithuania conducted a training in case of a possible accident at the Belarusian NPP, which, according to legend, Minsk decided to hide from Vilnius. Civil defense services imitated the evacuation, sirens sounded on the streets, and people got text messages about an emergency. If it does happen, almost one million Lithuanians will be in the risk zone, according to the Lithuanian Interior Ministry, which is one-third of the country's population.
Station workers expect transportation in front of two cooling towers of BelAES, Belarus, December 2, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
Belarusian Independence with Russian Money
“This station does not bring any benefits to Belarus, only a bunch of problems. While all progressive humanity is moving to renewable energy sources, for some reason Belarus is committing to the technologies of the last century,” says Ekodom’s Sukhiy. It was Ekodom who in 2010 organized the Public Environmental Assessment of the BelAES Project.
The “AES-2006” project – according to which the plant is being built – is Russian. The main partner of Belarus is the Russian company Atomstroyexport, which is part of the Rosatom state corporation.
Russia provides 90% of the money for the construction – in 2011 Belarus received a loan of $10 billion, which it has to pay back within 15 years after the commissioning of the plant. Adopting the construction of the plant in 2008, Lukashenko said that it would strengthen the state independence and economic autonomy of Belarus.
"We are very dependent on Russian gas – 98% of the electricity in Belarus is produced by TPPs," says Sukhiy. "But by building a Russian nuclear power plant, we do not become independent. We become attached to Russian technology, will have to buy Russian uranium and pay off the loan."
Russia and Belarus are constantly negotiating to deepen integration within the Union State, with the latest presidential meeting taking place in Saint Petersburg on December 20, 2019.
“The nuclear plant in our territory is one of the opportunities for pressure on Belarus,” says Sukhiy. "Our president swallowed this bait – a free plant with Russian loan. And now we have to deal with it somehow."
Ecologist Iryna Sukhy says environmentalists offered to hold public hearings before NPP construction, and in response they heard about radiophobia and myths, Minsk, December 2, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
Nuclear waste will also have to be dealt with. Russia, according to its legislation, can take away spent fuel for processing, but will then return it to Belarus anyway, says Sukhiy:
"We will have to spend a few billions to build repositories. And who knows how many years monitoring it. We leave this inheritance, that we are not responsible for, to our descendants. It is absolutely irresponsible behavior on the part of decision-makers."
Activists also say that even without NPPs the country has electricity surplus: in 2018 they produced about 39 billion kWh: 38 was consumed, and 1 exported.
"The 1 billion kWh surplus is already very high," says Yuriy Voronezhtsev. "Our entire 10,000-MW system can produce about 66 billion kWh, but we don't need that much even including exports. And on top of that, another 2.4 thousand MW of capacity from the NPP will be added."
The area in which the station is being built lives off agriculture, there are no large enterprises there.
"What will they do with electricity?" Ulasevich wonders, then adds with sarcasm "I do not know, maybe they will invent some kind of technology to store it in cans."
In April 2018, 10 years after the decision to build the station, Lukashenko stated that he "had definitely not been reported to yet" as to how the BelAES would be incorporated into the Belarusian economy. According to Sevko, the nuclear power plant was being built solely for the domestic market – it should replace 25-30% of the electricity produced by thermal power plants and thus make electricity cheaper, because the cost of nuclear power is much lower.
"It's nonsense that nuclear power is cheap," says Sukhiy. "The government has already announced that the electricity price will go up. Although at first, they felt it was economically feasible. So they can’t even count."
District # 1 in Ostrovets, where the station's employees live and the information center is located, Belarus, December 3, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
Contra spem spero
"We were quickly busted," Ulasevich recalls how 10 years ago activists began to fight the construction of the plant. “Detentions began, searches began, they came to our homes. They detained people on the territory of the district at the slightest dissemination of some information, and so on. They kept us in police stations, jailed us for a day. A car always kept watch outside my house whenever Lukashenko was coming. Whenever I tried to attend the “Chernobyl Way” [rally], the police would intercept and not let me pass."
Ulasevich calls those times “the period of fear” – people got convinced that they were powerless against the authorities, and began to treat everything with caution.
He admits: 700 signatures against the NPP collected by activists were not convincing. In 2011, when Lukashenko signed a decree to begin construction, Ulasevich filed a complaint with him to the Supreme Court, but the court ruled that the head of state was a person without jurisdiction.
Voronezhtsev says that it is difficult to calculate how many people support the construction of the station: "Our polls are like the elections: there is no trust in them."
And he recalls the last live broadcast on national television, in which he participated: at that time more than 80% of viewers voted against construction. After that, the activists were no longer allowed into official media, Voronezhtsev says.
Ostrovets, Grodno Region, Belarus, December 4, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
Ulasevich is almost 70. He grows potatoes in the garden and keeps sheep. He says that since he was dismissed from school in 2003, he’s had to shift with little money and sponge on his wife Raisa. Raisa worked as a nurse even after retirement, but then she was diagnosed with cancer and had to leave.
Ulasevich says that he is entitled to an increased civil service pension.
“But they won’t give it to me, even through courts. They are taking revenge for not sucking up to them."
Initially, the activist expected that the fight against the nuclear power plant would be headed by one of the reputable personae or Belarusian political heavyweights.
"But this topic did not get a good general or leader," says Ulasevich. “I'm almost 70, so how much longer can I fight for? I would already like for someone from the youth to be saddled with these things.”
Sukhiy gives an example: in 1972, construction of the Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant, the first of six planned, began in Austria, but because of an active anti-nuclear movement in 1978, the country decided to hold a referendum. The plant was completed and even loaded with fuel, but the Austrians voted against it and it was never launched. Now there is a museum and a training ground.
“The Soviet Union had a very powerful system: the KGB, everything else. And it also seemed like it was all immutable and here to stay for centuries. And it seemed - well, what do you think you are doing, guys ... I’ve been through it all, this whole school, which is why I only have hope for him," says physicist Voronezhtsev pointing his finger upward.
The hope that the plant will not be launched also echoes with Ulasevich: “We only have to call for common sense: well, don't do it, you are committing a crime that will turn into a great tragedy. For Belarus and not just, perhaps, for Belarus. Why do we need this? Why do we need another Chernobyl? Been there, done that.”
Nikolai Ulasevich hoped that one of the country's moral authorities would lead the fight against the nuclear power plant, but that didn't happen, Vorniany, Belarus, December 3, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
The Nucleus of an Atom
"Until we are 200-300% sure that we are ready, we will not launch the station," says Sevko.
The information center in which he works is located in the residential district #1 of the town of Ostrovets, located 18 kilometers from the NPP. New five-story buildings, a school, a kindergarten – all these have been built for the families of the atomists, the apartments have already been rented out.
Two other neighborhoods are being built in parallel. Before 2012, Ostrovets was an 8,000-strong settlement. Today, almost as many people work on the construction of the station, says Sevko. According to the latest census, the city's population has grown to 11,000, with all hotels crammed with business people.
But the tiled streets of residential district #1 are empty. And so is the information center. There is a monument on the entry road – green hands protruding from the ground hold an atom.
Sevko admits that Belarusians had many fears after the Chernobyl disaster.
“But before the construction of the station began, they were handled by the information service. We did not hear any categorical protests at public hearings, there were no activists with posters. The locals perceive it as normal,” Sevko says.
Buses take workers from Ostrovets to the NPP. One of them is the son of Yuliya Luksha, who lives in the nearest settlement – the village of Shulniki. There are some 2 kilometers from there to the NPP. She tells us about her son: "He doesn't complain. There is work – and that’s good. There were no jobs previously."
Yuliya Luksha lives in Shulniki village, her son works at BelAES, Belarus, December 3, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
Yuliya Luksha has lived in Shulniki for 50 years.
"Masha – one, Babariks – three, Sevruks – five, then Anya – six and Anya – seven, we (my husband and I) – nine and then there’s those who come and go. That's all the people that live here," Luksha lists her fellow villagers. Children and grandchildren moved to Ostrovets long ago.
They used to keep a farm – with both cows and pigs.
"When I would go to the farm for work, I was given the feed, but now I’m an old woman, I do not go to work, so who will give me feed?"
She complains that the last six chickens were recently killed by a fox: "I cried so much about those chickens! And now we keep nothing. You can just go and buy everything you need."
The store comes to Shulniki three times a week. The nearest bus stop is three kilometers away, in a neighboring village. When the construction of the plant started, the water disappeared in the village, but then some top official came and everything was repaired, so nothing has changed, Luksha tells us.
I ask the pensioner if she's scared to live so close to the plant.
"No, there’s nothing to be afraid of," she says. "What have I got to live... I'm 86 years old - maybe a month, maybe a week, maybe half a year. And that’s all, the end of life. What should I be afraid of?"
Yuliya Luksha’s house is only two kilometers away from the NPP, the reactor and cooling towers can be seen from her yard, Shulniki, Belarus, December 3, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
On this note, Hromadske leaves Shulniki. Snow-covered fields sweep past. But it looks like the nuclear power plant in the background is not getting any smaller. It towers over the landscape and the people living on the outskirts. Now everything revolves around it like electrons around the nucleus of an atom. And besides this plant, there is nothing to see through the window.
Shulniki, Belarus, December 3, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
Shulniki, Belarus, December 3, 2019. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske
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