Belarus to start nuclear plant next year-president

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MINSK, Oct 11 (Reuters) Belarus, at odds with traditional ally Russia over energy supplies, hopes to start building its first nuclear power plant in 2008 to ensure energy independence, President Alexander Lukashenko was quoted as saying today.

The ex-Soviet state, wedged between Russia and three European Union member states, has practically no energy resources of its own.

Discussions about building a nuclear plant have been under way since last year.

''There is no alternative to producing our own nuclear energy to ensure our national security,'' local media quoted Lukashenko as telling a meeting devoted to the construction project.

''In 2008, we should complete planned construction work which will enable us to start the actual construction of the station.'' Belarus has set the cost of building a nuclear plant at 2.5 dollars to 2.8 billion dollar, to be financed with external borrowing. Construction is expected to take four to eight years.

Lukashenko has long spoken of diversifying energy sources in the country of 10 million and projects have included extraction of oil in Iran and Afghanistan.

Debate has intensified since the New Year, when Belarus quarrelled with Russia over the price and tax regime for deliveries of oil and gas.

Lukashenko, in office since 1994, is accused in the west of crushing fundamental rights and has been barred entry to both the United States and the European Union over allegations that he rigged his re-election to a third term last year.

He has long advocated the creation of a post-Soviet ''union state'' with Russia, but the Kremlin has cooled to the idea and relations worsened after the New Year energy dispute.

''Unfortunately, energy has been turned from a purely economic issue into a political one, into a factor affecting relations with other countries and with organisations,'' Lukashenko was quoted as saying.

No site has yet been selected for the plant.

Russia has offered its expertise in construction and Belarussian media reports say authorities are also looking at French and US firms as possible contractors.

REUTERS AE HT1607

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