RUSSIA'S recent decision to launch a huge, highly questionable program to expand its nuclear-energy capacity demonstrates how little has changed since the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986. The West must try to dissuade the Yeltsin government from pursuing such a dangerous program, not only with words but financially ambitious deeds.
After Chernobyl's No. 4 RBMK reactor exploded, Moscow stopped building this design series because of well-founded concerns about the safety of 15 similar reactors scattered across the country. The Yeltsin government's decision in December, however, essentially ended the moratorium; Moscow apparently sees the path to its energy security linked with nuclear power.
The collapse of the Soviet state has caused serious dislocation of Russia's petroleum and petroleum products, gas, and coal industries. In 1991, these accounted for almost 50 percent of the value of USSR exports; the Yeltsin government still sees them as crucial sources of hard currency. Yet between 1988 and 1992, crude oil production in Russia dropped 31 percent because of severe shocks to the supply and distribution system, combined with poor Soviet extraction techniques and technology. Turning to nucl ear energy to generate electricity for domestic needs, Russian planners say, will free up these natural resources to earn dollary abroad.
This economic rationale is not only specious, but harmful. Moscow's plan allocates several trillion rubles (roughly $11 billion) through the year 2010 to build at least 30 nuclear reactors. Russian nuclear-energy officials estimate that the net increase in nuclear-generated energy output will be 3 percent - an insignificant gain for such a huge expenditure. This diversion of resources also has the potential of depriving the ailing oil and gas industries of capital.
The safety problems inherent in Soviet reactor design are the biggest cause for concern. The RBMK design used in Chernobyl lacks a containment structure to prevent the release of radioactivity in the event of an accident - a feature common in Western design. Fire and safety systems also are substandard. Indeed, there have been reports from nuclear power stations in Ukraine that operators had actually turned off some safety systems to boost electricity output. This tactic is the same taken in a test at th e Chernobyl No. 4 reactor nearly seven years ago.
RUSSIA'S program is the largest, though not the only effort, to maintain or expand nuclear power in the former Soviet republics. Armenia is considering a plan to restart its troubled Medzamor plant, situated in a seismically active zone near the capital, Yerevan, and international borders. Ukraine and Lithuania rely on nuclear-generated electricity for 25 percent and 40 percent, respectively, of their energy needs. Yerevan has electricity for only a few hours a day and no central heating in sub-freezing temperatures. It is for these reasons that nuclear energy is seen as a necessary evil to "temporarily" meet energy needs.Yet fires continue to crop up at the Chernobyl power station, still in operation due to the energy crisis in the Ukraine. At the RBMK-series Ignalina power station in Lithuania, more than 1,000 welding defects have been discovered. Poor morale among staff, the shortage of spare parts, and bureaucratic chaos compound these problems system-wide.
What is to be done? The United States already has taken several small steps, including a $25 million nuclear-reactor safety program being implemented by the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. France and Germany also have made substantive efforts to improve nuclear safety. Global priorities will compete for dwindling resources, thus forcing a greater internationalization of the incipient nuclear assistance effort. In this regard, the Nuclear Safety Account approved by the so-calle d G-7 nations (the US, Canada, Britain, Japan, Germany, France, and Italy) in Bonn in late January is a positive step toward improving reactor safety in the former USSR.
In addition, the following steps could be taken:
*Prioritize immediately the most dangerous reactors for emergency assistance and closing within the year. More important, a feasible medium-term plan for their decommissioning must be developed.
*Stop the purchase of Russian and Ukrainian nuclear-generated electricity by West European nations.
*Empower the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) politically and financially to lead the Western assistance effort. The IAEA has the institutional expertise to manage such a project and could reduce the waste and duplication inherent in large programs being implemented by several nations.
*Encourage commercial investment in the natural energy resources of the former USSR. Improved energy security for Russia is likely to ameliorate the energy situation in the former republics as well.
Only dedicated, coordinated action today can prevent the dismal headlines of a "Chernobyl II" tomorrow.