Plans are underway for the annual Chernobyl Path March in Minsk on April 26, but this year they will be accompanied by similar demonstrations in the contaminated zone and in Astravets, the location chosen earlier this year for the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Belarus.
Earlier, two sites in Mahilou region appeared to be the favored locations for the station, but evidently they were rejected because one suffered from unstable soil conditions and the other might have "tectonic faults." An equally viable reason -that the Mahilou region is within the zone contaminated by the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, was not discussed. In turn, a widespread criticism of the Astravets site, that it suffered a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 1907, was dismissed by an expert from the prospecting company Belhealohiya (Belarus Geology), Volha Boyeva, who said that the proposed location is some 15 miles to the north of the rupture (Belapan, March 12).
In December 2008, the decision to use the Astravets site was announced by First Deputy Premier Uladzimie Syamashka, who said that work on the construction of houses for the builders would commence on January 19, 2009 and on the plant itself two days later. The station is to be a third generation water-pressurized plant, which is usually referred to by its Russian acronym VVER (www.charter97.org, Dec 19).
The current site is close to the villages of Mikhalishki and Hoza in Hrodna region, near the Lithuanian border and only 20 miles from the capital Vilnius. As news about the new location circulated last November, a steering committee was formed to create a public initiative entitled "The Astravets Nuclear Power Plant is a Crime" (ANPPC), headed by two locals, Ivan Kruk and Mikalai Ulasevich. They were reportedly refused permission to hold a public meeting in Astravets cinema and concert hall. Instead, on March 3, local officials held a partially closed meeting with experts, doctors, state officials, and media called "Construction of the Nuclear Power Plant in the Republic of Belarus -Security and Reliability," and opponents were not permitted to voice their opinions (Vyasna, April 9).
In mid-April, Ulasevich held a press conference in Minsk, at which he declared that the building of the station was not a civic decision, but rather a military-political one. He stated also that local authorities recently searched his apartment, as well as those of other activists opposing the construction, (Vyasna, April 14). According to one source, the district authorities sent out bogus leaflets on behalf of the "United Gay Party" purporting to come from ANPCC, ostensibly in the belief that such an agency would be universally condemned by the public (Bellona, March 16). A protest was also held in the city of Salihorsk by several young men, who posed as mutants and handed out literature, alongside a poster with the slogan "No to new Chernobyls" (www.charter97.org, April 15).
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has the final decision on both the location and acceptance of the project. Despite the current financial difficulties facing Belarus, and the daunting costs of completing the station estimated at 4.5 to 5 billion Euros (Narodnaya Volya, April 15), it is to go ahead as planned. It will comprise two 1,000-megawatt reactors in its first phase scheduled for completion by 2016 (reactor one) and 2018 (reactor two), Lukashenka remarked that Russia was prepared to issue its neighbor a loan for the project and referred to a recent opinion poll of the Institute of Sociology that revealed that 60 percent of Belarusians support the project (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, April 7). The actual figure was 54.8 percent (www.minenergo.gov.by, Dec 20).
According to the Belarusian Ministry of Energy, the country will sign an agreement with Russia for the joint construction of the Astravets station, but it is plausible that a foreign engineering company will be employed to draw up the details (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, April 13). Russian ambassador to Belarus, Aleksandr Surikov, in a recent interview with the news agency Belapan, stated that Russia supports the idea of the station, and he also remarked that there would be an opportunity to expand the plant beyond its initial size (Narodnaya Volya, April 15).
The plans are causing some anxiety in several quarters. Lithuania's Foreign Minister, Vigaudas Ushatskas, expressed concern that the plant was so close to the border with his country (Bellona, March 16). Lithuania's Ignalina nuclear plant, which is a graphite-moderated RBMK, is slowly being phased out, while the location is in an environmentally clean zone close to several nature reserves.
The third issue is the projected costs and Belarus' inability to pay them. In essence, the project will be almost entirely Russian in operation, including fuel and reactors, as well as potential ownership if the loans are ever recalled. It would add to the Russian economic interventions in Belarus, which include the project "Minsk City" at a cost of $4.5 billion and the presence of subsidiaries of seven Russian banks (Narodnaya Volya, April 15).
Finally, there is a more general problem of resorting to nuclear power in the country most affected by the Chernobyl disaster. About one fifth of Belarus' residents inhabit areas contaminated by that accident, but the government has adamantly maintained that the land is safe to cultivate. The new project in Astravets has given new significance to the Chernobyl anniversary in Belarus.