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Nuclear Power Project Sparks Opposition in Belarus

The control room and its damaged machinery is seen inside reactor No. 4 in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, November 2000 (file photo)
The control room and its damaged machinery is seen inside reactor No. 4 in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, November 2000 (file photo)
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In Belarus, the nation that most suffered from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, officials recently signed a deal for their first nuclear power plant from Russia. Despite the authoritarian government in Minsk, popular protest is bubbling.

After an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear complex, in what then was the Soviet republic of Ukraine, on the night of April 25, 1986, a northerly wind contaminated almost one-third of the territory that now is Belarus.

With the 25th anniversary of the disaster fast approaching, painful memories are flooding back as Belarusians watch Japanese firefighters try to control fires and contamination at the Fukushima nuclear complex. In neighboring Ukraine, a newspaper headlined what many people thought - the Japanese Chernobyl”

Russia's nuclear push

Then came a second jolt. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew into Minsk on March 15 and oversaw the signing of a $9.4-billion nuclear power plant complex  - the first nuclear reactors for Belarus.

Tatiana Novikova helps to run the Belarusian Anti-Nuclear campaign and she calls the power plant deal a provocation to a people who suffered the consequences of Chernobyl.

But exporting nuclear power plants is a big business for Russia. In the face of bad news from Japan, Putin chose to aggressively promote nuclear power. On March 15, he offered a $4-billion loan to finance a Russian nuclear power plant to India. Then on March 16, he met in Moscow with Turkey’s visiting prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and re-confirmed Turkey’s plan to buy Russian reactors.

To ensure that Minsk starts construction on time in September, Russia is extending to Belarus a $6-billion loan.

Vladimir Slivyak runs Eco-Zashita, or Eco-Defense. Speaking from Moscow, he said Russia’s nuclear power industry is crippled by secrecy and corruption. "The policy of Russian government on construction of new nuclear reactors is completely wrong, and the level of nuclear safety at nuclear plants that are already operating is at a way low level."  

Russia currently produces about 16 percent of its electricity from 32 nuclear power plants. Over the next decade, the government plans to build another 11 reactors, raising the nuclear portion of Russia’s electricity production to 25 percent.

Anti-nuclear movement gains momentum

As in Belarus, Japan’s accident has energized Russia’s anti-nuclear movement. Slivyak, whose web address is: www.anti-atom.ru, said "We have been way, way lucky, so far, that we did not have an accident like in Japan."

In Minsk, Putin arrived primed to combat nuclear skepticism. He said Russian reactors are now several generations beyond the late 1960s Soviet designs used in Chernobyl. He said, "Japanese reactors are using 40-year-old American technology. We’re talking about completely new technologies."

His Belarus counterpart, Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich, agreed, saying, "Belarus and Russia will build an efficient and safe nuclear power plant. This issue is especially sensitive to us. You know that April 25 will mark 25 years since the Chernobyl disaster, and so this is a momentous event for us against the background of this and the latest developments in Japan."

Putin added that Belarus is not in an earthquake zone.

But an activist group calling itself "Scientists for a Nuclear-free Belarus" has written an open letter to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, saying that in 1909, an earthquake as strong as the one recorded in Japan last week was recorded in the area of Belarus selected for the two reactors.

Belarus nuclear complex

The Belarus nuclear complex is to be constructed on the northern edge of the country, 20 kilometers from Lithuania. Lithuanian officials are asking why Belarus, a country almost the size of Britain, is locating the nation’s only nuclear power plant 45 kilometers east of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital.

Relations are already chilly between the two neighbors - one a democracy, the other ruled by a man often called the last dictator of Europe.  Last December, when an independent exit poll indicated that Lukashenko was not going to win the first round of presidential elections, he responded by locking up seven of the opposing candidates.

Novikova describes how controls are tightening on anti-nuclear activists in Belarus.

Public sentiment opposed

She charges police staged a traffic accident with Nicholas Ulasevich, the leader of anti-nuclear protesters in the power plant construction area. He had to pay a large fine. When confronted by an anti-nuclear reactor petition signed by 3,000 local residents, Novikova said police responded by investigating each signer.

Last year, a Belarusian talk show, Choice, asked TV viewers if they think modern nuclear power plants are safe. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said no.

In the current atmosphere, it is unlikely there will be any similar show soon on Belarus state-run TV.

Indeed, a recently released movie, Innocent Saturday, was suddenly pulled from theaters in Minsk. Russia’s first film about the Chernobyl disaster, the movie revolves around a young Communist Party official who hears of the nuclear accident on Saturday night, April 25. The next morning, he is one of the first to arrive at the burning power plant and witness the scale and danger. As alternatives, Minsk movie theaters offer a choice of a thriller or an action film, both fantasies.


James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

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