Meltdown of Authority: Soviet-Designed Nuclear Plants Court Disaster

Article excerpt

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. …