MINSK -- Moscow and Minsk have signed a deal for a $9.4 billion loan that will clear the way for Russia to build a contentious nuclear power station for Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports.
The deal calls for Belarus's first nuclear facility, at a site near the border with Lithuania, to come fully online by 2018.
It was signed at a special session in Minsk of the joint Russian-Belarus Union with visiting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in attendance.
According to the preliminary plan, construction of the plant in the Hrodna region will start later this year.
Russia pledged in January to provide Belarus with the loan to help build the plant.
Activists in Belarus had stepped up their campaign against the project, in Astravets in western Belarus.
Ecologists and opposition activists are calling for the plan to be stopped in the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan, where a nuclear power plant hit by last week's earthquake has been hit by explosions and leaked radiation into the atmosphere.
Minsk-based energy specialist Valyantsin Matskevich calls the idea of building a new nuclear plant in the Astravets district "criminal." He recalls that in 1909, the region was hit by a 7-magnitude earthquake, and says there is no guarantee that history will not repeat itself.
Heorhi Lepin, a member of the public organization Scientists for a Nuclear-Free Belarus, says that the financial and economic problems Belarus currently faces preclude embarking on such a costly project.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk on March 15.
He says that even 12 years ago, before the global economic downturn, only 7-8 percent of the Belarusian population supported the idea. If a similar poll were held now, the number in favor would be even lower, Lepin says.
Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine suffered the vast majority of the contamination after explosions ripped through Ukraine's Chornobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986, according to the conclusions
of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The loan is for 25 years, with repayments to begin only after the new plant comes on stream.
Russia has already started building the Baltic Nuclear Power Station in Kaliningrad Oblast.
Read more in Belarusian here