Many Lithuanians know that the formalities to enter Belarus can take more time than, for instance, the preparation of documents to visit faraway Thailand. Although it looks as if the nice little cities in neighbouring Belarus, just a few dozen kilometres from Vilnius, can easily be reached from Vilnius, those who want to visit this country will have to be extremely patient and precisely follow all the border-crossing rules.
But it is really worth filling in the long forms and waiting a few hours at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border. Belarus is currently at the threshold of great changes. Upon arriving you will be greeted by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin stretching out his hand to you for a handshake... But in the streets (of Ostrovets), people boldly talk about the kind of country they would like to see and what kind of country they are creating. How successful this will be, only time will tell.
In addition to their common history, folklore and neighbourly love that Lithuanians and Belarusians have for one another, there is one more very relevant issue which both peoples share – nuclear power plant construction. In a referendum, Lithuanians gave a firm “NO” to the question of the construction of a nuclear power plant, but in neighbouring Belarus and Kaliningrad this idea has started to materialise. If in Kaliningrad the construction of a new power plant has been slowed down, the construction on the site in Ostrovets in Belarus is going full speed ahead.
Journalists from Balsas.lt on a visit to the soon-to-be "nuclear" Ostrovets had the chance to check up on the progress.
“The nuclear paradise” will come soon
Ostrovets welcomes visitors with well-kept streets and well-maintained flowerbeds. However, not all of Ostrovets’s residents are happy about the nuclear power plant that is being built nearby. The community is divided into two camps – some people are categorically against the construction of a nuclear power plant, whereas others hope that this plant will create an economic paradise for locals.
The new atomic power plant will rise on a site that is only 25 kilometres away from the Lithuania-Belarus border and 53 kilometres away from the capital Vilnius, in which a little over 0.5 million people currently live. And although Lithuanians are less than pleased with their neighbour’s plans, Belarusian energetics specialists claim that scheduled construction does not breach any of the European Union regulations on nuclear plant construction.
Belarusians’ favourite and main argument in defence of that construction is that in France Switzerland, Germany and Belgium, there are at least a few power plants close to national borders and big cities. The future nuclear power plant in Belarus will be 20 kilometres away from Ostrovets.
Also, there is a new residential area being built in Ostravets – the houses are meant for construction workers. At the moment, 1.5 thousand people work on the nuclear power plant construction site and 300 more builders are working on the residential area. Aleksandras Pozdniakovas, senior engineer of the power plant Capital construction council, said:
“For this construction next year, we plan to employ approximately 3 thousand people and in 2017-2018, when the reactors are assembled, approximately 8-9 thousand people will work here.”
The power plant can hold more than two reactors.
The nuclear power plant construction depot is 200 hectares in size. The same size area will be needed for the nuclear power plant with its two reactors. When Lithuanian journalists inquired about President Alexander Lukashenko’s statement that in the future there might be more reactors built on site, the senior engineers avoided giving a direct answer. Vladimiras Gorinas, the deputy engineer, asserted:
“At the moment we are building a nuclear power plant with two reactors and what will happen later, only the future will show.”
The price of the construction of a nuclear power plant is 10 billion US dollars.
The mission – to live on 300 litas a month
Maria who sells fruit in a kiosk is optimistic about living in Belarus. When asked – taking into account salaries and prices - if it is possible to live decently, she said:
“I cannot say that we are very hungry now. The more you work, the more you earn. There is no unemployment in Ostrovets – those who want to work always manage to find a job”.
Another local resident, who did not want to tell her name to Balsas.lt journalists, explained that if the nuclear power plant is being constructed here, it means that there is a need for it.
“If this is being done it means that our government needs it and therefore we need it too. We are hoping for new jobs, because people living here want to work and can work”.
The woman explained that the recovery in the jobs market is already prominent. According to the construction managers, there are currently around 15 thousand construction workers on the construction site and there are plans to hire up to 8 thousand people in the near future. Local authorities have already boasted that a salary for a qualified construction worker will be up to 3.5 thousand litas. The lady revealed that the nuclear plant construction had a very noticeable effect on local salaries – they decreased.
The local lady also said that the government may be attempting to raise funds for the construction by making cuts in other public sectors.
“No one explained anything to us - salaries simply decreased. They say that the soviet times are over. If you want to know about salaries in Belarus, please ask how much a teacher earns. A cook working at a school canteen earns 1,000,400 roubles (approx. 292 litai – authors’ comment). This is not enough for one person to live on and you also have to support children, and pay the bills.”
Chernobyl caught up in Ostrovets
There are also some locals who are categorically against the construction of the nuclear power plant. One on them is Galina. When the Chernobyl power plant reactor exploded in late May 1986, Galina‘s family was living in Pripyat. Galina told her story to the Balsas.lt journalists, who came to find out what the locals think about the nuclear plant construction.
“I came here from that zone. We moved to Ostravets after the disaster. Our house was damaged, everything we had just disappeared. We came here without anything. We had to start from scratch.”
Back then, Galina was newly married to her husband who worked in the nuclear plant. Unfortunately, because of the radiation he was exposed to, he fell ill and never regained his strength. He passed away three years ago. The tragedy of Chernobyl also took away Galina’s parents – when she and her husband decided to move, her parents refused to leave their home in the danger zone. After the move, Galina’s family never met again – Galina’s parents passed away a few years after the tragedy. Galina and her husband also did not have children. Galina still remembers how she came to Ostravets without a change of clothes, or household items – everything that they had was at home beyond the border – a home that turned from being cosy, to deadly dangerous after the explosion. Without even trying to hide her pain, the local lady said that now she is all alone. The Chernobyl disaster that she ran away from in 1986 has caught up with her here. In many senses.