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15 February 2023, 14:26

Milestones of BelNPP project: From idea to full-capacity operation

Aleksandr Lukashenko inspecting the BelNPP in November 2020
Aleksandr Lukashenko inspecting the BelNPP in November 2020

It was hard to imagine it some ten years ago. Even today it is sometimes difficult to comprehend that Belarus did not only conquer space, but also became a nuclear power. This year, the second power unit of the Belarusian nuclear power plant (BelNPP) is to be put into commercial operation. Trial connection to the power grid is scheduled for the spring. Let's wind things back and recall how the decision to build a nuclear power plant in Belarus was made. What are the three most important tasks that the NPP addresses and why did Lukashenko call the Belarusian nuclear power plant a burr in the saddle of the European Union. How many safety levels does the NPP have? The answers to these questions are in a new episode of the After the Fact: Lukashenko's Decisions project.

Back in August 2012 Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko visited the construction site of the nuclear power plant. He noted: “We should focus on high technologies. There is no technology more advanced than space and nuclear power. Therefore by harnessing this kind of technology we are boosting the intellectual potential of the nation. This is the future of Belarusian people.”

When did Belarus decide to build a nuclear power plant?

The decision to develop nuclear energy in Belarus did not come out of nowhere. Back in the 1980s, the construction of a nuclear heat and power plant began near Minsk as part of the USSR Energy Program adopted in 1983. Yet the nuclear energy program was discontinued after the Chernobyl disaster. In the end, a gas-fired power plant was built instead of a nuclear facility near Minsk.

In the 1990s, the state of energy supply in Belarus was evaluated and nuclear energy entered the agenda again. According to experts, the shortage of energy capacities could only be remedied by using organic and nuclear fuels. This could reduce electricity costs and ease dependence on gas supplies. Yet it was not until the mid-2000s that the issue was revisited seriously. In 2005 the president approved Belarus' Energy Security Concept and gave an instruction to study the feasibility of building a nuclear power plant.

Already at that time, more than four hundred nuclear power units were in operation around the world, most of them in Europe where nuclear energy accounted for more than 30% of electricity production. For example, France derived about 80% of its electricity from nuclear energy. In Belarus, thermal power plants produced 93% of energy using gas. According to estimates, the construction of a nuclear power plant was expected to cut this amount by a third.

“This position is based on solid evidence and research. Scientists analyzed domestic energy needs and took into account international practices that suggest that nuclear energy will become the key tool to overcome the global energy crisis,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said at an energy security meeting in 2006.

After many months of studying the possibility and feasibility of building a nuclear power plant, in early 2008 the Security Council made a final political decision to build a nuclear power plant in Belarus.

“Construction of a nuclear power plant is a feasible project, a strategic task, and Belarus is not going to abandon it. I think future generations will appreciate our decision,” the president said back then.

Why was Ostrovets chosen as the construction site?

Belarusian specialists studied 74 possible locations to choose the safest place for the BelNPP construction. After analyzing geographical, hydrological, seismotectonic, ecological and other factors, they shortlisted three sites - Krasnopolye and Kukshinovo in Mogilev Oblast and Ostrovets in Grodno Oblast. These sites met all international requirements and IAEA recommendations.

Taking into account the energy shortage of the western region, close vicinity to a water source and a better geological structure of the underlying soils, the special state commission opted in favor of Ostrovets. The total area of the site is 450 hectares. The other two sites were designated as reserve ones.

Just imagine 450 hectares. That's 630 football fields. When we talk about a nuclear power plant, our imagination paints two giant energy units. But this facility is about dozens of buildings and hundreds of operational and safety systems. These are indeed, as the president says, the highest technologies.

After the decision to build the nuclear power plant was made, Belarus had to choose the general contractor. Belarus considered all options, not exclusively those from Russia. The country was choosing between the projects submitted by Russia, the tandems of France/Germany and Japan/the USA. But the European design did not fit well into the energy system of the country due to the high output capacity of the power unit. The U.S.-Japanese project was brand new, not used anywhere in the world before. As a result, in May 2009, the governments of Belarus and Russia signed an agreement on cooperation in the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes. The process began.

The head of state said that the most modern and safe nuclear power plant would be built in Belarus. Of course, there were critics. But how much did they really care about the security of the country?

“Do not listen to anyone who, citing Chernobyl, says that we do not need a plant and so on. They are paid to say so. Our plant and the Russian one in Kaliningrad are a burr in the saddle of the European Union and the Baltic states. They don't want us to have a modern nuclear power plant and compete with them. Moreover, they will be losing their sales markets. If energy is cheaper, we will produce cheaper goods. It is all about competition. These are the highest technologies. Why shouldn't our nation have this asset? Soon you will see that I made the right decision,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said as he met with students in 2013.

Two years later, the head of state once again visited the construction site of the nuclear power plant. “We should have a nuclear plant. This means cheap electricity, new technologies, a brand new image of the Belarusian nation. We are doing the right thing by building such a powerful plant,” Aleksandr Lukashenko emphasized.

How much did the construction of the nuclear power plant cost Belarus and where did the country get the money for it? Who became the general contractor and participated in the construction of the facility? Why did Lithuania try very hard to stop the commissioning of the facility, and Belarus, on the contrary, extended the hand of friendship to them. These are interesting questions. But they have been discussed so much that I will skip them and move on to another topic. The most important thing for all of us is the safety of the Belarusian nuclear power plant. To find out how it is protected, we visited the place most holy.

How is the BelNPP safety ensured?

The Belarusian nuclear power plant has been built using the Russian AES-2006 design. It features the evolutionary (3+generation) VVER type reactors and implements active and passive safeguards. The reactor building is covered with a double protective shell. This is the most tried and tested technology in the world. It was used in the nuclear power plant projects in China and India over the past decade. Nuclear power plants based on this design are to go online in Egypt, Türkiye, Hungary, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan.

“The Belarusian NPP was designed taking into account a number of external factors - earthquakes, floods, aircraft crashes, etc. Thus, our NPP project meets the latest requirements. The NPP project is also one of the most advanced in terms of safety. Five out of seven power units, the construction of which began in various countries last year, are based on the AES-2006 design. That's really saying something. This project meets safety standards of both the IAEA and Europe. At the moment it is the most common in the world. Today, it is used to build nuclear power plants in Hungary, Bangladesh, and Egypt,” Deputy Energy Minister Mikhail Mikhadyuk said.

There are four so-called lines of defense against an emergency at the BelNPP. The first barrier is the nuclear fuel pellet consisting of sintered uranium dioxide, a sufficiently strong and chemically inert material. The second barrier is the fuel element. It is made of high-strength, chemically and heat resistant zirconium alloy and is hermetically sealed at both ends. The third barrier is a thick-walled reactor vessel and equipment of the main circuit made of high-strength materials. And finally, the fourth barrier is the reinforced concrete hermetic shell of the reactor room. It is so strong that it can withstand all external impacts: earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, even a plane crash. By the way, as far as planes are concerned… It goes without saying that the airspace around the nuclear power plant is under close control. Moreover, to protect the nuclear power plant in Ostrovets District, a separate military unit was set up.

But that's not all. Each reactor has a control and protection system that allows keeping a nuclear reaction under control. In the case of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, emergency shutdown took 14.5 seconds, while this safety system allows doing it within two seconds. Safety control rods fall down by gravity immediately shutting the reactor down.

Let's take a look at the very epicenter of power generation - the turbine hall of the first power unit. This building houses a 3,000 RPM steam turbine. Its total weight without pipelines and a condenser is 2,500 tonnes. The unit is about 75m long. It is here where thermal energy is converted into kinetic energy, and then into electricity, head of the turbine workshop Andrei Lazovsky said.

What will happen in the event of an emergency power outage?

In the event of an emergency power outage, the safety of the power unit is guaranteed by a backup station. It has four diesel generator sets. Each of them can independently maintain the operation of one power unit.

After the Fukushima accident, safety measures at nuclear power plants were toughened even more. The tsunami in Japan flooded the basements of Fukushima and disabled the emergency diesel generators, thus there was nowhere to take electricity from. Now, a mobile diesel generator set is provided for each power unit. In the event of an accident, it can provide passive heat removal from the reactor.

What we are showing is not fountains at all. These are spray ponds that are part of the cooling system. They are needed to effectively remove heat from the auxiliary systems serving the reactor compartment. Each unit has four independent channels for cooling water. This is done in order to ensure an uninterrupted supply of water if necessary. As with generator sets, one channel is enough to remove heat. It can operate independently for eight days. But for safety reasons, there are four of them.

Why does the nuclear power plant need its own repair shops?

By the way, the Belarusian nuclear power plant also has its own repair shops: machining, welding works, pipeline repair. There are limited-access workshops directly at the power units to repair the equipment of the reactor compartment.

Why does the nuclear power plant need its own workshops? For the effective operation of all systems and equipment. The Belarusian NPP runs scheduled maintenance programs. Once a year, the plant halts the power unit for partial refueling and scheduled maintenance.

“This is a routine operation that is carried out at any nuclear power plant in the world, without which its reliable and safe operation is impossible,” Deputy Chief Maintenance Engineer at the BelNPP Sergei Bylchinsky said.

Ten years ago this decision to develop the nuclear energy program in Belarus was hard to imagine. But today it is clear that it was the right one. The nuclear power plant does not only guarantee the energy security of Belarus but also contributes to the common cause of mitigating the climate change impact. While other states are just launching their national nuclear programs, Belarus has already developed its own nuclear infrastructure. The Belarusian NPP works for the economy and brings a tangible effect.

Since the connection to the national grid, the first unit has replaced several billion cubic meters of natural gas. With the commissioning of the second unit, the plant will meet about 40% of the country's domestic needs.

“Our country is becoming a nuclear power today. This is a huge success, the pinnacle, if you will, of the current stage in the history of sovereignty and independence of our country. It shows that we are smart and that we have reliable friends who helped create this unique object that will serve us for a very long time,” the president said as he inspected the BelNPP in 2020.

What do I want to say at the end. The construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant is not only a nationwide project. But it's certainly a deeply personal story. This is a good example of how to think big and set ambitious plans. To be confident in yourself and strive for your goals despite any difficulties and obstacles.

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