Nuclear projects still in limbo

  • 2010-08-11
  • From wire reports

VILNIUS - According to Belarusian First Vice-Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka, the end of July was scheduled to mark the finalization of an agreement between Belarus and Russia to build a nuclear power station at Astravets, in the Hrodna region, with construction of the station to start next July. Unsurprisingly, given recent tensions between the two countries, that did not happen, reports news agency LETA. In addition, there is increasing pressure on Belarus from various sides to abandon the enterprise altogether.

The evolution of the Belarusian nuclear power station has been noted for its fluctuations, cost and financing issues, timing, and primarily, its role in the potential saturation of a small area of northeastern Europe with similar projects.
One visitor to Astravets, Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, noted that while some construction work has been done on roads and basic infrastructure, the building of the station itself is not yet underway and could conceivably be abandoned. Lithuania has cited environmental concerns, including the potential impact of the Astravets plant on its river systems, and its location only 28 miles from Vilnius.

However, plans to build a new Lithuanian station at the same location as the shuttered Ignalina plant, which was decommissioned at the end of 2009, are more controversial. Ignalina is located at the intersection of three borders: those of Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus. The plant supplied 78 percent of Lithuania’s electricity through two RBMK reactors, which initially had a capacity of 1,500 megawatts, but which was reduced to 1,300 megawatts at the insistence of the EU. The EU’s concomitant demand to close the station as soon as possible has led to a situation whereby only Russia operates an RBMK station, and Lithuania is for the moment completely dependent upon imported Russian gas for its electricity needs.

The Baltic region may also see two other reactors come into service very shortly: a new unit at the Leningrad nuclear power station at Sosnovyi Bor, near St. Petersburg (four are planned altogether to replace the obsolete RBMK-1000 reactors of the Chernobyl type) and a highly controversial third unit at the Olkiluoto station in Finland. Both Poland and Estonia are reportedly considering nuclear plants of their own.
Moscow’s decision to build another new nuclear plant, called the Baltic Nuclear Power Station in Kaliningrad Oblast, seemed designed as a counter to the new edifice to be erected at the Ignalina site. It also signifies that the Astravets station now has a low priority in Moscow.

Yet Belarus is almost entirely dependent on Russia for Astravets, both for its construction and operation. The goal of bringing the first unit online in 2016 is entirely unrealistic, say analysts.
Moscow also demanded that 50 percent of the ownership of the plant would accrue to the Russian energy company Inter RAO UES, which is 57 percent owned by Rosatom, through the operation of a joint venture.
The task of the Belarusians now is to persuade their Russian partner that the enterprise should go ahead as planned. However, the Russians are hardly in a mood to make concessions given the current deterioration of relations between Moscow and Minsk. A series of critical television programs and media articles about the Belarusian president have been released and several leaders of the Belarusian political opposition have recently received a warm welcome in Moscow, reported BelGazeta.

Several analysts have suggested that Russia is even ready to replace its former ally, Lukashenko, with a more amenable figure, The New York Times wrote on Aug. 1, though it remains unclear whether there will be any serious effort to unseat him.