23/09/2020

Three decades after world’s worst nuclear disaster, the country most affected by the fall out is set to open its first nuclear plant. But as Oliver Carroll finds out, not everyone is pleased

It was when the tree fellers arrived in early 2009 with their bulldozers that Nikolai Ulasevich, a local activist, knew the game was up. 
There might not have been a published order to build an atomic power station in the fields overlooking his homestead in the village of Vornyany – but a decision had clearly been made. In authoritarian Belarus those decisions rarely have a reverse gear. 
In the years that followed, Ulasevich watched as the gigantic cooling towers and system blocks of Belarus first nuclear station took shape. Construction, which was led by the Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom, would be far from straightforward. A string of incidents delayed its opening, but the first reactor is finally due to go online early 2020.
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To say the construction of the Belarusian nuclear plant has been controversial would be to trivialise the history of these lands. 
Chernobyl lies only seven miles from Belaruss southern border, and the nuclear accident, still the worlds worst, has left the deepest of scars locally. The direction of the wind in spring 1986 and the Soviet authorities’ decision to avoid major harm in Moscow meant Belarus suffered more than any other region in the union. At the moment that the radioactive clouds moved towards the capital, air force pilots were ordered to chase down the toxic clouds and seed them with jets of silver iodide. 
Much of the southernmost region of Homel remains seriously contaminated, with elevated oncology levels as a result.  
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Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites
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Evening in the ghost town of Pripyat
2/25
A gas mask hangs in a building inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
3/25
Remains of Soviet propaganda in one of the barracks of the abandoned anti-aircraft base Volkhov near the Chernobyl NPP
4/25
The shell of a television stands inside a building in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
5/25
A children’s play area inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone
6/25
A Soviet-era classroom in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
7/25
Tourists inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone
8/25
Duga was a Soviet over-the-horizon (OTH) radar system used as part of the Soviet missile defense early-warning radar network
9/25
In the Pripyat abandoned apartments you can still see the abandoned belongings of evacuated residents of the city
10/25
“Ambulance car model RAF-2203 Latvija (nickname Rafik) on the background of the Medical Sanitary Unit 126 in Pripyat. It was a minibus designed and developed by Rgas Autobusu Fabrika from 19761997. They were widely used throughout the USSR as medical cars. Model RAF-2203 also were used in Pripyat”
11/25
Remains of Soviet propaganda in one of the barracks of the abandoned anti-aircraft base Volkhov near the Chernobyl NPP
12/25
An empty swimming pool inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone
13/25
“Illegal Chernobyl explorers cross the Uzh river in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This is the time when you can safely walk around the abandoned without fear of being caught by the police”
14/25
“A couple of years ago the Ukrainian army began to conduct military exercises in the city of Pripyat. Traces of bullets on the walls and glass of the city are not such a rare phenomenon in Pripyat today”
15/25
Interior of a flat in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
16/25
“Chernobyl explorer on the top of huge Soviet radar Russian woodpecker or Duga radar. As a rule, we climb up Duga radar at dawn. From a height of 150 metres you have an incredible view of the expanses of the Chernobyl zone”
17/25
Interior of a building in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
18/25
“The perimeter of the Chernobyl exclusion zone is protected by barbed wire. But this does not stop the fans of dark tourism”
19/25
The Ferris wheel in the amusement park of the ghost city of Pripyat is the hallmark of the city. This ferris wheel was supposed to be launched on May 1, 1986, but the Chernobyl accident destroyed these plans forever
20/25
“Pripyat is the main goal of many illegal Chernobyl explorers. To get to the city you need to walk about 40 km on foot. On the way to the ghost town, explorers spend the night in the abandoned villages of the Chernobyl zone”
21/25
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Interior of a flat in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
23/25
Interior of a building in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
24/25
From inside a kindergarten in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
25/25
Another view of the Pripyat Ferris Wheel
1/25
Evening in the ghost town of Pripyat
2/25
A gas mask hangs in a building inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
3/25
Remains of Soviet propaganda in one of the barracks of the abandoned anti-aircraft base Volkhov near the Chernobyl NPP
4/25
The shell of a television stands inside a building in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
5/25
A children’s play area inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone
6/25
A Soviet-era classroom in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
7/25
Tourists inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone
8/25
Duga was a Soviet over-the-horizon (OTH) radar system used as part of the Soviet missile defense early-warning radar network
9/25
In the Pripyat abandoned apartments you can still see the abandoned belongings of evacuated residents of the city
10/25
“Ambulance car model RAF-2203 Latvija (nickname Rafik) on the background of the Medical Sanitary Unit 126 in Pripyat. It was a minibus designed and developed by Rgas Autobusu Fabrika from 19761997. They were widely used throughout the USSR as medical cars. Model RAF-2203 also were used in Pripyat”
11/25
Remains of Soviet propaganda in one of the barracks of the abandoned anti-aircraft base Volkhov near the Chernobyl NPP
12/25
An empty swimming pool inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone
13/25
“Illegal Chernobyl explorers cross the Uzh river in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This is the time when you can safely walk around the abandoned without fear of being caught by the police”
14/25
“A couple of years ago the Ukrainian army began to conduct military exercises in the city of Pripyat. Traces of bullets on the walls and glass of the city are not such a rare phenomenon in Pripyat today”
15/25
Interior of a flat in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
16/25
“Chernobyl explorer on the top of huge Soviet radar Russian woodpecker or Duga radar. As a rule, we climb up Duga radar at dawn. From a height of 150 metres you have an incredible view of the expanses of the Chernobyl zone”
17/25
Interior of a building in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
18/25
“The perimeter of the Chernobyl exclusion zone is protected by barbed wire. But this does not stop the fans of dark tourism”
19/25
The Ferris wheel in the amusement park of the ghost city of Pripyat is the hallmark of the city. This ferris wheel was supposed to be launched on May 1, 1986, but the Chernobyl accident destroyed these plans forever
20/25
“Pripyat is the main goal of many illegal Chernobyl explorers. To get to the city you need to walk about 40 km on foot. On the way to the ghost town, explorers spend the night in the abandoned villages of the Chernobyl zone”
21/25
22/25
Interior of a flat in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
23/25
Interior of a building in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
24/25
From inside a kindergarten in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
25/25
Another view of the Pripyat Ferris Wheel
Any local over fifty can recall what they were doing on those dry, spring-summer days. They talk about the tiredness; the strange, dryness of the mouth; the rumours that it might be a good idea to take iodine; but the lack of reliable information. They will also tell you about a cloud of secrecy almost as harmful as the black cumulus masses that had their radioactive bowels emptied over southern Belarus. 
It was only later that panic had a chance to set in, remembers Maria Ivanovna, a local hotelier who declined to give her surname. A resident of Astravets (Russian: Ostrovets), the main town serving the nuclear plant 10 miles down the road, Maria Ivanovna said locals were evenly split about the project. Many are delighted with above-average wages and improvements to local infrastructure  especially the newcomers who have tripled the population since work began. There is a new sports centre, hospital and road connecting to the Minsk-Vilnius motorway. But her generation was uneasy, she said.  
The thought of what happened back in 1986 cant fail to make you anxious about what may happen. You know they may not tell you the whole truth.
Lithuania, the European nation that borders Belarus just 10 miles west of Astravets, is bitterly opposed to the nuclear plant. It says it has not been properly consulted and claims the plant breaches post-Fukushima distance guidelines in particular, a recommendation that nuclear power stations should not be built closer than 100 kilometres of major conurbations. The new nuclear plant lies just 30 miles east of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. 
Anti-nuclear activist Nikolai Ulasevich at his home in Vornyany, 3 miles away from the new nuclear plant (Oliver Carroll)
The Lithuanians say they are preparing for any eventuality: from stockpiling iodine tablets to opening up nuclear bunkers and issuing survival notes to their citizens. In October, authorities ran a major preparedness operation, imitating a disaster response to a nuclear meltdown. The drills were knowingly hyperbolic. But several reported incidents do give pause for thought. 
From what we know, the reactor vessel in Belarus has already been involved in at least two accidents. The first was in July 2016, when it was apparently dropped from a crane during installation. Belarusian authorities took weeks to admit an minor incident. Five months later, a replacement reactor vessel collided with a railway pylon while being transported. At least five workers have died in construction accidents. There was at least one fire incident in the control room. 
The outside world would likely have stayed little the wiser were it not for the opposition activist Ulasevich monitoring from his modest home, which he shares with his wife, a few chickens and sheep, 3 miles away from the new power station. He said he found out about the dropped reactor vessel in conversation with a local construction worker. 
He swore that he saw it break free of ropes at a height of 2 or 3 metres, he said. 
A spokesman for Rosatom told The Independent that allegations about safety issues were entirely without merit. The reactors being used were among the safest in the world and designed to risk the possibility of even the most unlikely event such as a plane strike. Antinuclear scaremongering doesnt help to fight climate change, the spokesman said, and it appears to be only devised to protect the profits of the fossil-fuel energy sector in the region.
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Others are not so sure. Yury Voronezhtsev, the man who led the official Soviet official response to Chernobyl, said he could not believe any statement that the plant was safe. 
I dont believe that our Belarusian construction workers are any better than the Soviet ones, he told The Independent. We have the same people, and the same systems. Dont forget that Anatoly Aleksandrov, the physicist who designed Chernobyl, assured us his plant was so safe it could be built on Red Square. His confidence did not age well. 
Mr Voronezhtsev said it was sad that Belarusian authorities had pressed ahead with the project given the sensitivity of the issue locally. There was no obvious justification for a power station given that Belarus had no need for extra capacity, he added. 
Belarus says the power station will be used to meet domestic power needs. But it seems likely that part of the initial plan was to sell electricity to neighbouring Baltic countries, which remain plugged into the Russian grid. A decision by Lithuania to outlaw buying dirty electricity from the plant has undermined such rationale. 
Instead, the project looks set to pull Minsk ever closer into Moscows embrace. Russia is providing the bulk of the financing for Astravets £8bn price tag, will be the sole supplier of fuel, and will deal with the radioactive waste. The power station plans were signed in a different era, at a time before Russia had expanded its military, annexed Crimea, or pushed Belarus along a path of forced deep integration. Now, such dependence is taking on a different significance.
This is part of a much larger game, said Ulasevich. The aim is to develop reliance in all the countries of Moscows immediate geography whether by gas, oil or Rosatom. Belarus has simply sleepwalked into the trap.