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As world rethinks nuclear power, Russia to invest $9 billion in Belarus plant

While much of the world is questioning investment in nuclear power amid Japan's crisis, Russia announced it will build a reactor in Belarus, where large areas remain closed off due to the Chernobyl meltdown.

By Correspondent / March 16, 2011

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (l.) and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko seen during their meeting in Minsk, Belarus on Tuesday, March 15. Putin is suggesting a nuclear power plant that Russia is planning to build in Belarus will be safer than the beleaguered plants in Japan.

Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/AP

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Moscow

Russia has triggered controversy by announcing that it will lend its politically unstable neighbor Belarus more than $9 billion to construct a Russian-designed nuclear power plant near Ostrovets, just 50 miles from the capital city of European Union member Lithuania.

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The deal, inked Tuesday at a meeting between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Belarussian counterpart in Minsk, is being met with deep concern from Lithuania and criticism from environmentalists, who argue that the reactor design is untested, ecological impact studies are incomplete, and the decision-making has lacked public input.

Under the agreement, Russia's state-owned Atomstroyeksport will build the Russian-financed Ostrovets nuclear station, with the first reactor due to come on line in 2016 and as many as four more reactors operational by 2025.

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The announcement seems strangely ill timed, given the still-unfolding nuclear tragedy in Japan and growing nervousness in Russia's own far eastern region over the danger of radiation blowing from the stricken Fukushima atomic power station, just a few hundred miles away.

Putin's nuclear defense

Mr. Putin defended the project, saying the five VVER-1200 pressurized water reactors Russia plans to install in Ostrovets are the "latest technology," whereas the failing American-built Japanese units are 40 years old.

"The level of protection will be substantially higher than in Japan, and that's not taking into account that Belarus is not in a seismic fault zone like Japan," Putin said.

Belarus suffered more than any other former Soviet republic from the meltdown and explosion of the Chernobyl atomic power station in 1986, and to this day large territories of the country remained closed radioactive zones.

"If Russia really wants to help Belarus, it has to be safe and economically efficient projects, not the construction of an unnecessary and dangerous nuclear power plant," Irina Sukhiy of the Belarussian environmental group Ecodom told journalists recently. "This project is economically unviable and ecologically dangerous. We call on the Russian government to reconsider participating in it."

Political instability

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