Gambling on a Nuclear Future

Nearly 30 years after Chernobyl, Belarus seek energy sovereignty with Russia’s help

By: John Brannen, Staff Writer

In the spring of 1986, life in the small city of Astravyets in the northwest corner of Belarus – then part of the Soviet Union – carried on as usual. Labourers went to the state-run factories for work, farmers sowed their crops and children went to school. It was weeks before the city learned that around 600 miles to the south, the worst nuclear accident in history had occurred, spewing highly radioactive Iodine-131 all over the city, country and most of Europe.

It is in Astraveyets, however, that almost 30 years after the Chernobyl disaster, Belarus’ first nuclear power plant will go online. President Alexander Lukashenka, in an unusually modest moment, said the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus is “nothing extraordinary.” A project of this scale will have long lasting consequences and if not extraordinary, the issue of nuclear power in Belarus is important, not just for the country, but the region.

Belarus in Brief

Belarus is an inconspicuous country of less than 10 million people in Eastern Europe. It’s nestled in between Russia and the European Union, though it’s undoubtedly friendlier with its immense Eastern neighbour. Almost 22 years ago, Belarus and Russia were under the same red banner of the Soviet Union. While in the USSR, it underwent a period of ‘Russification’: the elimination of Belarusian language, culture and symbols and replacement with Russian ones.

WWII was devastating and has left a deep scar on the Belarusian consciousness. The Nazi invasion and Soviet counter attack destroyed entire villages and towns and killed a quarter of the Belarusian population

Despite this, Belarus was gradually restored after the war, with the capital city of Minsk being almost entirely rebuilt from the ground up in the grandiose Stalinist style. It became an industrial powerhouse within the Soviet Union, with its unparalleled trucks and tractors sold throughout the Eastern Bloc.

The Invisible Enemy

In the true Soviet style of shabbiness and thriftiness, a series of cheap and inherently dangerous nuclear power plants were built throughout the USSR. The most infamous plant was built in 1977 in Ukraine a little over 10 kilometres from the border of Belarus. Officially, the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station or simply Chernobyl after the nearby city produced about 10 per cent of Ukraine’s power.

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, an experiment at Chernobyl nuclear power plant escaped the control of technicians and scientists. The result was an explosion, reactor meltdown and radioactive fire that burned for days. Deadly particles were ejected from the reactor and landed throughout Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and most of Europe. Because this radioactive cloud was heading toward Moscow, Soviet authorities decided to seed clouds over Belarus to literally rain radiation and prevent the fallout from reaching the capital. Due to the clouds, rains and prevailing winds, 60 per cent of the fallout from the disaster landed and remains in Belarus.

[pullquote]literally rain radiation and prevent the fallout from reaching the capital.[/pullquote]

Europe’s Last Dictator

Belarus has been independent country since the USSR’s dissolution and began to reintroduce its native culture and language. Despite initial democratic reforms in 1991, freedoms have slowly been curtailed by the country’s first current President, Alexander Lukashenka, who was dubbed Europe’s last dictator by the US. The press and opposition groups are marginalized and elections are widely regarded as unfair and unfree by international observers.

It should be noted that though the West has labeled Lukashenka a tyrant and dictator, credible polls in Belarus demonstrate time and time again he is popular with the people.

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