Belarus – a nuclear newcomer5 August 2014
Civil works have begun on two Russian-built VVER-1200 (V-491) reactors at Ostrovets in Belarus. Russia is providing $10 billion in loans to build the plant, which is less than 50km from Lithuanian capital Vilnius. By Alexey Kovynev
Belarus became independent in 1991. Before that it was a republic in the USSR and it remains in political, economical and customs union with Russia. Its 2012 GDP was $4858 ($13427 in purchasing power parity terms) per capita; most of it comes from state-owned enterprises.
Belarus has an installed power capacity of 9 GW to serve its population of 9.5 million. Half of its electricity is produced by thermal power plants and the rest comes from small plants using hydro and locally-sourced fuels.
Until the mid-2000s the price of Russian gas in Belarus was $45 per 1000 m3. At that price the country was not in need of alternative energy. But rising prices for gas and other energy resources forced the government to begin examining its options for developing its energy industry. A combination of modernising existing power plants and constructing new combined-cycle plants, upgrading locally-fuelled thermal power sources and using alternative energy and energy efficiency was investigated, but the pace of that economic development was too fast to meet the country's energy needs. The country concluded that developing nuclear energy would meet its needs, while also improving the environment and enabling Belarus to improve its technical and scientific capacities.
There is currently little power machinery or nuclear fuel cycle expertise or facilities in the country. However it should be recalled that Belarus had some - although brief - experience of building a nuclear power plant. Construction a 2000 MW plant comprising two VVER-1000 reactors began in 1983, at a site 35 km from Minsk. Work stopped at the Minsk site in 1988, two years after the Chernobyl accident, and eventually a thermal power plant was constructed on this site.
Belarus also has experience in nuclear research. The Institute of Nuclear Energy of the Academy of Sciences (Joint Institute for Power and Nuclear Research) was founded in 1965 and is located near Minsk. One of the major projects of the institute was developing a mobile nuclear power station (called Pamir) mounted on an automobile chassis. The reactor and turbine generator units were placed on two truck chassis. Control boards and staff room were located on two other chassis. The station had a staff of 28. Two units were assembled, one of which was fully-tested. But in 1986, after the Chernobyl accident, the safety of the station was criticised, the project was closed and both were dismantled.
The decision to build a nuclear power plant was adopted at the state level in 2006.
Site selection for the nuclear plant in this relatively small country was not easy. The database of the National Academy of Sciences, prepared in the days of the USSR, consisted of 70 sites. After consultations with experts from the IAEA, Russia, Ukraine and other countries, two sites were identified. Neither had conditions that would prohibit construction, but both would require additional engineering works to manage karst (fractured limestone rock) conditions.
A site near the town of Ostrovets, in the Grodno region, 150 km from Minsk, was considered optimal. After the selection process was reviewed by IAEA missions a 2 km2 site was approved in 2008.
To select the type of plant to build the Ministry of Energy of Belarus studied the experience of other countries using nuclear power. Proposals from AREVA and Westinghouse, and from Chinese and other suppliers were considered, but given Belarus's close economic, social and political ties with Russia, the choice - Russian AES-2006 using VVER-1200 reactors - was almost a foregone conclusion. An additional factor in the decision was the availability of reference units - Tianwan (a VVER-1000) has been successfully operating in China since 2007 and also Leningrad 2 is under construction in Russia and due to start up in 2016. In Belarus the site will house two VVER -1200 (design V-491) reactor units, each with a capacity of 1200 MWe. Commissioning is planned for November 2018 and July 2020.
A key factor in the decision was the project cost and loan terms, as it was well-known that Belarus's ability to finance construction was very limited. In the original framework agreement, Russia would provide a $6 billion loan for construction of the station. Later, in 2009, the Belarussian side requested from Russia an additional loan of $3 billion for infrastructure construction. That included housing in a new town for power plant staff, road and rail connections and power lines. The result of state-level negotiations was
an announcement in March 2011 (a few days after the Fukushima accident), during a visit to Minsk by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, of the signing of an agreement on construction of the nuclear power plant. Under the agreement Russia agreed to give to Belarus a loan of $10 billion.
The Fukushima accident did not affect the decision and preparations for construction have continued. In November 2011 a construction contract was signed with Russia's Atomstroyexport, (the general contractor for exported Russian nuclear plants). In November 2013 Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree authorizing plant construction.
Construction is now under way. Excavation works began in late 2011, when to save money it was decided to start digging foundations for the second unit at the same time. Construction of units 1 and 2 began in November 2013 and March 2014, respectively. As of April 2014 the basement foundations of unit 1 are being laid and excavations are under way for the foundations of unit 2. Belarussian industrial organisations are being used as subcontractors, but the Belarussian work input is not fixed. If the level of localisation of construction works is high then there will be little local supply of equipment.
Road and rail infrastructure for the site has been completed and an agreement has been signed with China for construction of power lines. It was the usual practice of the Soviet power industry to construct a town for staff in parallel with nuclear power plants, and at Ostrovets homes have been built in the village where the construction staff and later the plant operating personnel will live.
The important task of training nuclear staff was begun in 2008. A state programme was developed that covers education of students in universities, training of the teaching staff, as well as other activities such as retraining of thermal energy specialists, involving foreign experts, and training in other training centres. The country is in close cooperation with the IAEA in this and other programmes. In 2012 an IAEA mission reviewed the readiness of the country to build the plant and its recommendations are being implemented.
Construction of a nuclear power plant is a very large project for a small country such as Belarus. The state is 100% owner of the plant, as is typical for CIS countries, where there is no private (even minority) ownership in the nuclear industry. So the project has strong government oversight and support. The head of state personally monitors progress and the vice-prime minister is responsible for the plant and participates in monthly meetings.
The system of state nuclear regulation is being created almost from zero. If state control of radiation safety in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident was sufficiently well-developed, nuclear safety regulation has been a new challenge. The absence of a legal framework for nuclear energy regulation was revealed during preparation of the licence for the siting and construction of the plant. But as the saying goes, "a path is made by people walking," and the presence of a powerful Russian nuclear safety framework will allow it to be quickly incorporated into Belarussian legislation.
A lot of work has been done in the area of public relations. After the Chernobyl accident, in which a third of the territory of Belarus was contaminated, it was not easy to convince people of the benefits of nuclear energy, where fear and distrust prevailed. This work has had the desired result; support for nuclear in the country has grown from 30% to 80%.
But if efforts within the country have been supported by the population, there is an "unfinished dialogue" with neighbouring states, as the Belarussian authorities say.
In accordance with the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (the Espoo Convention), Belarus held public hearings in Austria, Lithuania, and Ukraine. In 2010 at hearings in Vienna the public representatives of the ministries and the federal states of Austria voted against construction of the plant, but that was not an obstacle for construction. In the past similar protests were made by the Austrian leadership and environmentalists against the Temelín plant in the Czech Republic, but its reactors began commercial operation in 2002-3.
Especially unfinished is the dialogue with Lithuania. Obviously it would be difficult to expect enthusiasm from a country whose capital (Vilnius) is less than 50 km from the site of the plant. In 2010 the Ministry of Environment of Lithuania issued an official position on this issue, saying that "The requirements of the international Espoo Convention are not met". Lithuanian critics also believe using the river Vilia as the main source of water for the power plant will have a negative effect on this river, which flows through Vilnius. Lithuania plans to fight against the Belarussian plant through the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In 2011 the Belarussian Ecology Ministry published an open letter explaining its position. Belarus believes that necessary processes have been completed successfully and all requirements have been met. Despite this, it said it is ready for further dialogue. All interested parties have been invited to participate in post-analysis of the nuclear power plant. Poland has expressed readiness to participate in this analysis.
Discussions and protests continue, and as usual in hot debates, opponents have been accused of defending their own hidden interests - in this case those interested in maintaining other forms of energy or electricity prices.
Thanks to its close cooperation with the Russian nuclear industry Belarus can develop nuclear energy without developing the entire fuel cycle. It does not have to find uranium deposits, enrich uranium, fabricate fuel elements, store or reprocess spent fuel. An intergovernmental agreement between Belarus and Russia guarantees the supply of nuclear fuel for the lifetime of the plant and return of spent fuel of Russian production to Russia for temporary storage.
The problem of radioactive waste remains, but this is not unique to Belarus. Any modern nuclear plant project includes volume and mass reduction of radioactive waste to the minimum practicable, and safe storage at the station for the entire plant lifetime. The problem of the final disposal of radioactive waste, if currently unresolved, is at least shared by the global nuclear power industry.
The experience of Belarus in preparing for construction of its first nuclear power plant has provided important lessons in realising major high-tech industrial projects that require infrastructure development in conditions of great uncertainty for private investment and where high-level state support and international cooperation is needed. This experience can be actively used by other countries developing nuclear energy.