8 April 2020, Wed 10:13

The New York Times: Accident At BelNPP May Bring Us Disaster Much Worse Than Chernobyl 13

15:53 23.03.2020 — Politics

Rosatom’s project in Belarus is political.

The New York Times has published the text about the construction of a nuclear power plant in Astravets. It tells how Belarus, having built a power plant for the Russian money, found itself trapped for many years to go. The Village Belarus is publishing the translation of the material.

Belarus — Rising from the former potato and wheat fields of a collective farm, huge towers of concrete beckon to one of Europe’s poorest countries with the promise of cheap, plentiful supplies of electricity for generations to come.

But the location of Belarus’s first nuclear power plant — an area of pristine farmland just 40 miles from the capital of neighboring Lithuania — points to calculations that go beyond just kilowatts.

The plant was built by Rosatom, a state-owned Russian nuclear conglomerate, and financed with a $10 billion credit line from Moscow. Belarus soldiers at a new military base nearby have been trained in St. Petersburg by Russia’s National Guard, a security force set up by the Kremlin in 2016.

The facility’s two reactors, set to go into operation soon, will produce far more electricity than Belarus can consume and lie far away from industrial areas eager for cheap power on the other side of the country.

Lithuania, seen as a promising potential market when planning for the plant began more than a decade ago, is now so horrified by the prospect of Russian-controlled nuclear fission on its doorstep that it has outlawed the purchase of any electricity the plant produces and started holding nuclear accident exercises.

For all the problems and protests, however, the Astravets plant is in many ways a model of success in what, under President Vladimir V. Putin, has become an aggressive push into foreign markets by Russia’s sprawling nuclear industry. Rosatom has secured more than 30 reactor supply deals. Last year, the company claimed it had international projects worth $202.4 billion in its portfolio.

Russia’s success — it has sold more nuclear technology abroad since Mr. Putin came to power in 1999 than the United States, France, China, South Korea and Japan combined, according to a recent study — is in part commercial, generating lucrative contracts in Europe, Asia and even Africa to sustain Rosatom’s more than 250,000 engineers, researchers, salespeople and other employees.

But it has also given Moscow a powerful geopolitical tool, locking clients like Belarus, but also members of the European Union like Hungary, into long-term dependency on Rosatom, and therefore the Russian state. That strategy seems particularly evident with plants like the one here in Belarus.

Rosatom, formed in 2007 from the remnants of the Soviet-era Ministry of Atomic Energy, has now joined Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled natural gas behemoth, and Rosneft, a state-owned petroleum giant, in the vanguard of a drive by Mr. Putin to develop “national champions” that serve as both profit-driven businesses and instruments of Russian power.

“The nuclear plant is an example of Russia’s desire to keep states along its borders in its orbit at all cost,” Linas Linkevicius, Lithuania’s foreign minister, said, referring to the Astravets facility. “It helps them preserve more influence.”

With other kinds of electricity plants, the contractor builds the structure and leaves its operation to the owner. But with nuclear plants, the owner, usually a foreign government, remains dependent on the contractor for 50 years or more for fuel, know-how and eventually decommissioning.

“It means a strategic partnership with another country for a long, long time,” said Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based expert on the nuclear energy industry. This, he added, will leave Belarus “connected at the hip with Russia for decades.”

The two countries are already extremely close, bound by history, the Russian language and the shared legacy of the Soviet Union. But Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has long played Russia off against the West to maintain his country’s independence, now faces growing pressure from Moscow not just to align with Russia but to join it in a merged “union state.”

Rosatom insists its deals are strictly business and Mr. Putin, in public statements, has eschewed any open mixing of nuclear commerce and politics. When Ukraine, once a major Rosatom client, overthrew its pro-Kremlin president in 2014, Mr. Putin told officials that Russia “needs to cooperate with all our traditional partners” no matter what their politics. But, he added, this must “of course ensure our own interests.”

A big part of Rosatom’s success in winning so many contracts comes from the provision of credits to finance the plants. Ted Jones, director for national security and international programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, a trade association, complained that state support, particularly in financing, has given Rosatom a huge advantage over rivals like Westinghouse, the largest American nuclear contractor.

“They are driven by different interests. Westinghouse is a business. Rosatom is a designated strategic exporter,” he said, “They are notching up big strategic wins each time they get a deal.”

Unlike Western companies in the nuclear business, which must abide by rules set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that limit the role of state financial support and impose other constraints, Rosatom, a recipient of lavish support from the Russian government and treasury, has a free hand to pursue its own business. Over the past decade, Russia has opened credit lines of more than $60 billion to six countries for nuclear power plants.

Westinghouse lost out on a contract to build a new reactor in Hungary when Russia offered the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, a loan of $11 billion. Rosatom’s deal for the Paks II nuclear plant in Hungary helped cement close ties between Mr. Putin and Mr. Orban, who has frequently broken with fellow European leaders to side with the Kremlin on issues like Ukraine and the shortcomings of liberal democracy.

Rosatom, having shaken off its reputation as a swamp of corruption and escaped from the dark cloud left by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, is now a front-runner for a revived nuclear power project in Bulgaria, another member of the European Union. It won a $30 billion contract for four reactors in Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally, and another big nuclear plant deal in Turkey, a NATO member whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has worked increasingly closely with Mr. Putin, despite their being sharply at odds over Syria.

It has had some setbacks. In February, Bolivia’s caretaker government suspended the construction of a Rosatom nuclear research center, saying the project had not received all the required regulatory approvals. The center was part of a $350 million deal with Rosatom approved in 2016 by the former president, Evo Morales, an ally of Russia; the new government has scrapped dozens of his initiatives since taking office in November.

The new plant in Belarus has always involved more than just straightforward economic calculations for both Moscow and Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

Officials in Minsk promote Astravets as the best way to break the country’s reliance on Russian gas.

“We had no other path,” said Lilya V. Dulinets, deputy head of the Belarusian nuclear energy department. “We were thinking about our energy security, which is what economic security, and hence the state’s independence, is based upon.”

Sergei Chaly, a Belarusian economist, questioned this. The Rosatom plant, he said, will only substitute a dependence on Russian nuclear fuel for a dependence on Russian gas, which is currently used to generate 95 percent of the country’s electricity. It will also produce far more energy than Belarus needs, he added.

To make use of the surplus, Belarus will become one of the few countries with a state program to drastically increase the use of electricity. Soviet-era water heating plants across the country that were using gas will be converted to electric power.

The plant is also nudging Belarus into closer military cooperation with Russia, which has supplied Tor antiaircraft missiles to help protect the facility from attack and helped train Belarus military personnel serving at a new army base set up near Astravets to defend the plant.

Russia’s success in winning contracts at a time when many of its competitors are struggling to stay in the nuclear business has stirred fears in the West that the global market is turning into a duopoly controlled by Russia and China, where the state has also provided financial and other support to boost foreign sales.

“The concern is that by 2030 or 2040 all the new business will be operated by Russia and China because they will be offering financing terms that nobody else can,” Mr. Hibbs said.

Safety concerns, heightened by the 2011 disaster in Fukushima, Japan, have hit the whole industry hard, particularly in the West, where antinuclear groups are vocal and influential. But even Belarus, a tightly controlled authoritarian state, has struggled to curb public fears: Almost a quarter of its territory was contaminated by radioactive cesium released by the Chernobyl reactor.

Some nuclear scientists also have their doubts.

“Only people who have no clue, or the ones working in the nuclear industry, can say that a nuclear power plant is safe,” said Andrei Ozharovsky, a Russian nuclear physicist who was arrested and deported from Belarus for his criticism of the Astravets project. “There are still many scenarios here under which we can have a disaster that would be even worse than Chernobyl.”

In 1993, a report by scientists from the state-run Belarusian Academy of Sciences listed the area near Astravets as “unfavorable for the construction of a nuclear power plant” because of its seismic activity and hydrological issues. The lead scientist who signed the 1993 report later retracted its findings, saying that the area has since been found to have better foundations than others under consideration.

Another report, compiled by European experts in 2018, recommended “a review of the zoning and seismic catalog” of the area. It also said that the project failed to demonstrate the required robustness of some key structural elements of the plant in an event of a powerful earthquake. For instance, it said that the fire extinguishing system was “currently not seismically resistant.”

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