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Meltdown of authority: Soviet-designed nuclear plants court disaster.

MOUNTING energy shortages are forcing Armenia to re-open the Yerevan nuclear power plant which was shut down after earthquake damage in 1989. Lithuania is operating the Ignalina reactor without routine maintenance checks in order to obtain the biggest possible energy yield. Four of the six reactors in Bulgaria's Kozloduy plant, which have been condemned by specialists of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after a very thorough safety examination, are still being operated in rotation, two at a time while the other two are undergoing repairs.

These and other instances of managers risking catastrophe in the operation of the largely obsolete nuclear plants of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union coincide with revelations of a long list of hitherto suppressed recent accidents, some of them claiming many lives.

Their practical implications for the energy industry -- and the many other industries dependent upon it -- are enormous because they demonstrate that the reactors are now being operated in a safety regime far more dangerous than that previously controlled by the Kremlin.

Dr. Hans Blix, the deeply concerned director general of the IAEA in Vienna, has offered to mobilize help for the republics joining the Commonwealth of Independent States that has replaced the Soviet Union. Sweden is helping Lithuania with the establishment of an independent nuclear power authority. British Nuclear Fuels and France's Cogema have opened nogtiations with East European governments and contractors from Western Europe, the United States and Canada are seeking business in the region.

At stake is the future of 62 largely obsolete Soviet-designed nuclear power plants, most of them in Europe and 17 in the fledgling Eastern and Central European democracies. A recent IAEA study has identified some of them in formerly communist-dominated Europe as the most dangerous on earth.

A quarter of the electricity consumed by the territories of the former Soviet Union west of the Ural mountains is generated by nuclear power. Dr. Blix fears that, in the absence of a central regulatory authority, too much responsibility for the maintenance of safety standards will fall on the individual plant operators in the independent republics. And at times of economic and political stress and intensifying pressure for power production caused by acute shortages of alternative fuels, this could lead to new nuclear plant disasters with incalculable consequences.

The death of the Soviet Union was preceded by the withdrawal of the Soviet nuclear experts who had operated the Kozloduy plant; and it was followed by the meltdown of the country's central safety and regulatory authority previously administered from Moscow. Today, the plants are owned by the governments controlling them but their operators are effectively answerable to no one for the maintenance of acceptable safety standards. Several Western governments have responded by sending specialists and equipments to the most dangerous plants to ward of disaster and the IAEA is exploring the introduction of a collective safety regime based on accord linking the forme Soviet republics.

The unprecedented decision to reopen the Yerevan nuclear plant was taken by Armenian parliamentary deputies wearing their overcoats in their unheated house of assembly. The plant stands on a seismic fault line. It was shut down three years ago after an earthquake which was then said the have damaged the reactors beyond econimically justifiable repair. One of them was also said to be too old and ready for decommissioning anyway.

A 400 mw unit is now expected to start up by next winter and a second to follow in 1993, eventually producing a surplus of electricity for export. At present, the unreliable oil and coal deliveries from Russia exacerbated by the economic blockade maintained by neighbouring Azerbaijan have led to the closure of hundreds of industrial plants. The flow of nuclear electricity is expected to reliave pressure on local hydro-electric plants which is in turn held responsible for a dangerous current drop in the water level of Lake Sevan.

Lithuania's Ignalima plant should have been closed for routine maintenance on January 29. Its operators believe that they must forego maintenance for the time being and run the plant to capacity to meet painful energy shortages. One of Ignalina's reactors was shut down, nevertheless, early in February following a radiation leak, and an engineer was arrested on charges of sabotaging the plant's computer system.

The Baltic republics are almost entirely dependent on nuclear power generation. Their energy crisis is so severe that Ignalina's managers feel justified to take the calculated risk with their plant -- the world's biggest Chernobyl-type reactor -- despite the poor safety record of itsn design. Finnish and Swedish nuclear experts have conducted a comprehensive examination of the nuclear power industry of the Baltic and Russia and have expressed grave concern over prevailing safety standards.

Bulgaria's Kozloduy plant won top priority status for Western assistance after the exposure of its safety standards by the IAEA last year. The biggest and most modern of its reactors supplying 40 per cent of the national electricity consumption has been shut down since the inspection by a long series of problems, including fires and a fault in a water pump. Bulgaria has told the IAEA that it dares not retire the reactors condemned by the report for fear of crippling the national energy network.

New revelations of recent nuclear accidents in the former Soviet Union include the deaths of 14 workers caused by a burst valve at the Balakovo plant in 1985 and major radiation leakages at the Byeloarsky and the St. Petersburg plants. An accident and substantial radiation leat at the Sosnovy Bor nuclear station in March has led to calls for the closure of all aging Chernobyl-type reactors.

The future is bleak. Nuclear plant operators in Eastern and Central Europe must decide very soon what to do with their fast accumulating radioactive wastes which the central supervisory authority of the civil atomic power industry of the former Soviet Union can no longer handle. Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary are expected separately to announce plans shortly for the construction of extensive new dry storage facilities to house spent fuel for perhaps 50 years.

Nuclear wastes generated by the Soviet-designed reactors used to be taken back to the Soviet Union for reprocessing. Since the late 1980s, the Soviets insisted on charging for the service which they had previously provided for free. Late last year they announced their inability to accept shipments.

Chaos in the Soviet nuclear power industry first became evident in the West when German Environment Minister Klaus Toepfer was told in Moscow late in October that the country simply lacked the means to take back spent fuel despite its contractual obligations.

Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria -- the very countries saddled with the most dangerous Soviet-built reactors abroad -- as well as Hungary must find their own solutions. Toepfer has responded with a call for a joint Western approach to a problem of global proportions probably involving all the nuclear plants of the former Soviet Union as well as the democracies of Eastern and Central Europe.

Germany has closed down the notorious Soviet-built Greifswald nuclear plant for safety reasons. Spare parts from Greifswald are destined for the Kozloduy plant in northern Bulgaria which has been condemned by the IAEA study because of its shoddy safety equipment, poor staff training standards and frequently recurring radiation leaks. The makeshift waste storage facilities near the Bulgaria plant on the Danube are very dangerous and likely in any case to reach capacity within a matter of months.

Czechoslovakia, whose Bohunice plantt was also condemned by the IAEA study as well as safety investigators from neighbouring Austria, is also storing spent nuclear fuel near the reactors in conditions causing grave concern. The store is unsafe, according to an unpublished report commissioned by Greenpeace, the environment pressure group, because the concrete used in the construction is not waterproof and the storage tanks were not designed for long-term use.

The technology, infrastructure and safety procedures of Hungary's Paks nuclear power complex were highly regarded by the IAEA inspectors, but the country's temporary waste storage facilities are still inadequate. The future of Hungary's nuclear construction programme remains unresolved pending studies of markets and energy alternatives, Hungary may indeed embark on nuclear power generation for export to neighbouring Austria and Italy which themselves refuse to operate atomic power plants. Western Europe faces a new threat from the East.

Thomas Land is an author and foreign correspondent who writes on global affairs.
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Author:Land, Thomas
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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