Why the country most poisoned by Chernobyl is going nuclear

Nuclear power plant, Belarus, April 2016Image copyright

When Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor exploded in 1986, much of the radiation was blown north to Belarus. But despite being devastated by the fallout from the world’s worst civil nuclear disaster, the country is now building its own nuclear power plant near the town of Ostrovets, writes Kieran Cooke.

Vladimir Gorin stretches out an arm, pointing to the array of building cranes poised like giant, pecking birds over the reactor building, the cooling towers shrouded in mist, the lines of ditches and barbed-wire fencing which guard the giant nuclear site.

Gorin, a squat, affable man built like a wrestler and with a handshake to match, is deputy chief engineer at the first nuclear facility to be built in Belarus.

“Our design and construction methods are among the safest in the world,” he says. “We are proud to have such a plant in our country.”

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An Orthodox priest blessing an excavator on the construction site of the nuclear power plant

We – that’s me and a group of mainly Belarusian journalists – are bombarded with data and statistics.

The steel shell housing the reactor is so many centimetres thick, and X thousand tonnes of concrete – or was it millions? – are being used on the site…

This country of just over 9.5 million people – a sort of halfway house between an expanded European Union to the west and the great expanse of Russia and what was the old Soviet Union to the east – is one of the flattest on Earth.

You can drive for miles along straight, often near-deserted roads, guarded by forests on each side, white tree trunks like massed regiments of soldiers.

The wind blows across the steppe. My notebook pages are smudged by the drizzle. Our minders – there are quite a few of them – are upset that the weather is failing to show off their nuclear plant to the best advantage.

We move on to the nuclear plant’s control room – like the bridge of Starship Enterprise, all decked out with giant computer screens and blinking lights – watched over by a phalanx of uniformed specialists.

A loud klaxon goes off in the nuclear control room, red lights flashing. The uniforms jump up, pressing buttons and making urgent phone calls. Gripping my hard hat, I look for a table to dive under, but wait a minute, the nuclear station is only half-built – it’s an emergency demonstration for our benefit.

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Belarus is both serious and surreal. It has a heavy, austere air and yet can play tricks, wooing you with humour and kindness.

Like the old days in the Soviet Union, people in positions of authority can appear gruff. When I went to the opera – 10 euros ($11, or £8) for one of the best seats in the house – and committed the serious sin of losing the cloakroom tag for my coat, the woman in charge loudly berated me for my carelessness. But then she relented, taking pity on the demented foreigner and going through rack after rack checking. A fellow opera-goer, a local, even offered to lend me her husband’s jacket.

When my main course at a rather soulless basement restaurant failed to appear after an hour, the waitress was at first dismissive of questions about its whereabouts, but then when the sad-looking dish finally arrived, the chef had scrawled a message in sauce on the plate, “So sorry”.

The capital, Minsk – which rises abruptly out of the steppe like the backdrop of a stage set – is all wide, straight boulevards lined by uniformly designed tower blocks. There are statues of Lenin and great bare squares for military parades. Yet there are also plenty of churches, trendy cafes and fashionable shops.

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An engineer carries out a radiation exposure survey near the exclusion zone around Chernobyl

How Belarusians – many of whom are still suffering cancers and other health problems due to the Chernobyl explosion – feel about their new nuclear power plant is difficult to gauge. Government critics say those who dared to raise questions were harassed or arrested.

One woman born in a village in southern Belarus, close to Chernobyl, tells of how the area round her old home is within an exclusion zone which circles the site. With tears in her eyes she says the area is judged to be so contaminated she’s only allowed back once a year, to tend the graves of her ancestors.

By a strange twist of fate, she now finds herself working near the new station – yet she’s upbeat.

“At first it felt strange, living so close to a nuclear station again but then I think, ‘Accidents can’t happen twice’ and we need the power.”

The nuclear facility in Belarus is near the border with EU member Lithuania – only about 30 miles (50km) from Vilnius, the Baltic state’s capital.

The Lithuanian government says the plant – designed and being built by a Russian state company – is a threat to its security, and that construction has gone ahead in breach of international agreements.

Engineer Gorin dismisses such claims. “Look how open we have been, inviting you all here,” he says. There are photos, crushing handshakes.

“Perhaps we should launch a newspaper,” he says – here there’s a deep chuckle. “We could call it The Atomic News.”

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