Dirty Rotten Reactors

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West Europeans may think that shutting down nuclear power stations in nearly every country but France will make Europe a safer place. But this well-intentioned initiative may actually serve to increase the danger of a nuclear accident. For every relatively safe Western plant to be shut down in coming years, Russia plans to build at least one new one or refurbish an obsolete and potentially dangerous one.
The logic is simple. Western Europe will have to import energy, largely in the form of natural gas, to fill the gap left by its decommissioned nuclear plants. The Russian government has figured out that its nuclear generators lacking the sophistication and elaborate safety features imposed on Western nukes can produce electricity more cheaply than gas- or coal-fired stations. Thus, the plan is for Russia to use nuclear power for much of its own electricity needs while the government-owned monopoly Gazprom sells its vast natural gas reserves in the West. "We plan to develop nuclear energy in such a way that it is both good for the country and advantageous for Gazprom," says Vladimir Vinogradov, deputy minister at the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy. "Given the impact of fossil fuels on the climate and environment, we must develop nuclear power."

Even as the West cuts back, Russia plans to triple its nuclear power generating capacity with a $25 billion expansion strategy that by 2030 will increase the number of operating reactors from 29 to 59, some of them to be financed with the help of E.U. loans. At the same time, Russian engineers will be upgrading old reactors, including the country's dangerous rbmk units similar to the one that exploded at Chernobyl in 1986. Ukraine has announced plans to shut down the remaining units at Chernobyl itself by December 2000, but even older rbmk units at Kursk and St. Petersburg are to be overhauled and equipped with stopgap safety improvements to prolong their lives for another three decades.

The Russians also plan to earn huge fees for storing and reprocessing radioactive waste piling up unwanted in the West including spent fuel from the European reactors that will be decommissioned in coming years. That means building and expanding controversial fast-breeder reactors, a technology largely abandoned in the West, to make use of reprocessed uranium fuel as well as the plutonium from the 20,000 Russian nuclear warheads being dismantled under arms control treaties.

"The Nuclear Energy Ministry believes that the future of nuclear energy lies with fast reactors," says Vladimir Kuznetsov, a former official of Gosatomnadzor, the Russian nuclear safety service who is now an adviser to the Russian ecological organization Green Cross International, headed by Mikhail Gorbachev. He says the ministry plans to use weapons-grade plutonium from decommissioned warheads to produce mox mixed plutonium and uranium oxides as fuel for fast breeders. "Handling uranium is not a problem," he says. "But plutonium is highly toxic, and it is not yet clear how it should be handled and what consequences its use might have."

The consequences of operating Soviet-designed and operated nuclear plants were dramatically illustrated at Chernobyl, but that was not the only nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union's history. A confidential report prepared by a group of experts earlier this year for the Russian government said that during the past 50 years there have been 384 reactor accidents with release of radiation, causing 58 deaths and 214 cases of acute radiation poisoning and that does not count the Aug. 12 sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk.

By comparison the French nuclear power industry, with twice as many reactors as Russia, has had just one accidental release of radiation with no deaths. "Reactors of Russian design would not be licensable in Western countries because they do not have all of the safety features that are mandatory, such as a containment dome over the top," says David Kyd, spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. He says the more recent Russian designs use "confinement," a tower containing a cascade of tanks intended to capture and condense radioactive steam escaping from an out-of-control reactor. But the system, says Kyd, "has never been tested on a full-scale model and has never been tested thank goodness in reality."

Many Russian reactors are deficient even by Moscow's lax standards. "None of the Russian nuclear plants fully meets current safety requirements," Kuznetsov asserts. "None has gone through a procedure of thorough examination for safety." The worst are the Chernobyl-type rbmk reactors. They lack even the "confinement" cascades built into other Soviet-era designs. They also rely on flammable graphite, a form of carbon, to moderate the speed of neutrons so a controlled nuclear reaction can take place. Most other reactors, including the latest Russian designs, use water both as the moderating element and coolant. If a water-moderated reactor loses coolant there may be overheating and even an explosion, but the reaction slows down when coolant is lost.

When an rbmk reactor loses its water coolant the graphite remains in place and a nuclear reaction continues producing heat that, combined with oxygen, can set the graphite on fire. In the Chernobyl accident a furious blaze in the uncovered core burned for nine days, sending vast clouds of highly radioactive particles into the atmosphere and around the world. "They should be shut down," declares Kuznetsov. He says plans to upgrade old rbmks and complete others, such as the half-finished unit 5 at the Kursk power station that was mothballed after the Chernobyl disaster, should be scrapped. "The commissioning of Kursk 5 should not even be discussed," he says. "It's criminal."

But Russian officials insist that new safety measures like training simulators, faster-acting control rods and upgraded control computers make even rbmks safe to operate. And thanks to the West's high-minded decision to phase out nuclear power and the resulting hunger for natural gas, Russia's most dangerous reactors will continue operating for decades to come. If another one goes the way of Chernobyl, West Europeans may come to regret decisions to scrap their unloved but safer nuclear reactors.

With reporting by Jan Stojaspal / Prague and Yuri Zarakhovich / Moscow