On threshold of nuclear era
[b]In 2011, Russia and Belarus signed a contract to build a nuclear power plant near Grodno Region’s Ostrovets. A loan is due to be transferred by the year’s end, with Russia opening a credit line worth up to $10bn. Repayment will only begin in earnest after the first decade, with the total repayable over 25 years. Two reactors, boasting a capacity of 2.4GW, are to be built by Russian Atomstroyexport, CJSC[/b]
Belarus has reached this point independently, having researched the matter thoroughly. The results are evident in Ostrovets — once an ordinary district centre in the north of Grodno Region, primarily known for being first mentioned in chronicles in 1496 and for having a very old Roman Catholic church. The situation has now drastically changed, with the town being frequently mentioned in the Belarusian and foreign printed and broadcast media. Delegations visit the site regularly and life for the 8,500 residents has significantly improved. Even the air seems to be filled with anticipation of change.
“This is our new market: neat and clean,” notes Adam Kovalko, the Chairman of Ostrovets District Executive Committee. He leads a group of guests down the central streets with pride and satisfaction. “At present, 22 trade enterprises are operating here and we’ve been able to reject those whose stands aren’t up to standard. Our hotel is considered to be the best among those in our region’s district centres, having been reconstructed. A new fire station is being built, designed to be able to tackle the new situation relating to the nuclear power plant; it’s due to open in late 2011. For the past eight years, the district police station has been an abandoned construction site; now, it’s a contemporary and comfortable workplace. In 2010, we held an international open air workshop for young sculptors; their ten best works now grace our park and other public places. Recently, the last streets lacking paving were covered in asphalt.”
While the head of the district is listing Ostrovets’ latest sites, we’ve travelled into the town’s suburbs. There are newly installed traffic lights and the town’s first nine-storey buildings, with passenger lifts. Of course, the new accommodation is designed to house those who’ll be building and, later, working at the nuclear power plant. One block has 118 flats and the other 119. Brightly coloured, they lift the spirits even on the dullest of winter days. Patterned curtains hang at the windows, showing that workers are already settled in. Engineers live nearby. The town has two suburbs planned, with water and heating supply lines laid, alongside other utilities. Only houses remain to be built, with several high-rise buildings being commissioned.
“The Belarusian nuclear power plant has no need of temporary accommodation or hostels,” stresses Mikhail Filimonov, the Director of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant Construction Directorate. He explains proudly, “The first wave of residential housing is designed to house around 5,500 builders, who’ll share flats in pairs, in comfortable conditions, fully furnished. The flats will then be given to nuclear power plant staff or will be sold.”
“Power engineers, constructors and local residents will live side by side to avoid feelings of division,” adds Mr. Kovalko. “Since the supply lines are being constructed from state funding, we’ve managed to include housing for local residents, recognising their need for improved housing at cheaper prices. The fourth housing co-operative is currently building a multi-floored apartment block. Each year, we’re seeing an increasing number of young graduates arrive, showing that people believe the nuclear power station can offer them a good career. Ostrovets is soon to become an ultra-modern town, with a population of over 30,000 people. Several new schools are planned, as are 12-13 pre-school nurseries. Healthcare and retail outlets are also being expanded, leading to further well-paid jobs.”
Rumours of the plans have quickly spread locally, with the District Executive Committee receiving applications from 2,700 people wishing to settle in Ostrovets. Some specialists from Ignalina Nuclear Power Station are among them (soon to be closed in neighbouring Lithuania). Most of these were born in Grodno Region, and headed abroad seeking well-paid jobs. Of course, such employment will soon be available in Ostrovets and there’s no call to be afraid of nuclear power — as the specialists will be able to assure everyone.
“Local residents are concerned as to whether Ostrovets will lose its identity and whether the influx of new residents will strip the neighbouring woods clean of mushrooms and berries,” notes Mr. Kovalko. “However, we can certainly say that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.”
The local authorities are keen to see the nuclear power plant built, as it will help provide several thousand local agricultural workers with employment; increasing mechanisation would otherwise leave them without jobs.
How are things going on the site of the future nuclear power plant? Before answering, we should visit the ‘mini-plant’ recently constructed near Ostrovets, producing concrete and mortar, metal rods and other components necessary for building. A road leading to the future nuclear power plant is newly completed and a parallel railway line has been laid. The peak of a modest hill 20km away opens up a wonderful panorama of fields, meadows and woodlands remains, interspersed with isolated farms and cottages, and a church in the distance. However, the first sharp contours of the future reactor are rising from this pastoral landscape.
“Most of the preparatory works are completed,” notes Mr. Filimonov. “Topsoil has been removed, the land has been surveyed and supply lines have been laid, alongside above ground lighting. Housing for construction workers has been built, with canteens, meeting halls and drying rooms included. Major work on the reactor can begin as soon as the corresponding Belarusian-Russian documents have been signed.”
There’s no delay on the construction site, as materials and equipment are constantly being unloaded. The long two-storey building producing concrete and mortar can be seen in the distance, able to deliver 180 cubic metres of high-strength concrete per hour, for continuous pouring (as is required for strong foundations).Within just two months, the frame of the future building will be ready at one end of the site.
Belarusian money has paid for everything so far, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent since 2007. Foreign specialists are surprised at how much was done prior to signing the main documents relating to the construction of the nuclear power plant. Nikolay Grusha, the Director of the Energy Ministry’s Nuclear Power Engineering Department, explains, “World experience shows that it takes several years to prepare and sign agreements to build a nuclear power station. The matter is especially acute for Belarus, since this is a whole new branch for the country: the first ever nuclear power station. We need watertight legislation. 2011 was a vital year for us in this respect; an inter-governmental agreement was signed in March on constructing the nuclear power plant— now being ratified in Belarus (there is no need in Russia). Contract and loan agreements have been signed, with the general contract next in line; it occupies hundreds of pages, outlining in detail the terms and types of work, as well as types of equipment and materials.”
In 2012, the construction of the nuclear power plant should begin, with the first reactor becoming operational by 2017. The second block will be ready by 2018. Belarus is set to save 5bn cubic metres of expensive natural gas annually. Mr. Grusha notes that, in future, additional reactors may be built, at far less cost, allowing us to export electricity.
The implementation of these plans allows Belarus to take its place among its neighbours, who are actively developing nuclear energy. Russia is building reactors in Leningrad and Kaliningrad regions and, after closing Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, Lithuania plans to construct a more contemporary station on its border with Belarus. All these sites are united within a single energy network, to which the Belarusian nuclear power station will be able to contribute.
By Vladimir Yakovlev