MOSCOW — CHERNOBYL, still operating in two reactors because a shivering Ukraine can ill afford to shut them down, hangs over the reputation of the Russian nuclear industry like a mushroom cloud.
But in fact the newer generation of Russian nuclear technology is one of the very few product lines where Russian quality is competitive with the most advanced Western countries.
The cash-poor Russian government is pushing hard for export sales of its nuclear technology. Export earnings at the Ministry of Atomic energy, called Min-Atom, have risen from $1.2 billion last year to $1.5 billion this year.
The problem is that MinAtom is so eager to continue expanding its export earnings that many observers inside and outside Russia believe it is willing to overlook the dangers of spreading nuclear-weapons technology.
''The balance of forces in Russia regarding exports, including nuclear exports, has swung increasingly to those who are willing to sell anything for the right price,'' says William Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies in California.
MinAtom, with an estimated 1 million employees, desperately needs earnings from selling technology and materials abroad and attaches little importance to proliferation concerns, says Valery Davydov, a consultant on nonproliferation at the Russian-American Press and Information Center and a MacArthur Foundation scholar.
The United States has made Russian plans to build reactors in Iran and sell fuel a major issue, since the US claims to have evidence through intelligence reports that Iran is working to develop nuclear-weapons capacity.
The Iran deal does not violate any international agreements, but Americans argue that it is extremely unwise, because Iran can use the nuclear power infrastructure as a sort of training ground for nuclear expertise, as well as a cover for weapons-oriented nuclear purchases and activities.
The Russians argue that the light-water reactors they intend to build in Iran would be of no use in developing nuclear weapons, and MinAtom Minister Viktor Mikhailov has joked that the quality of American intelligence indicating an Iranian weapons program is so poor that the agents' pay should be docked.
US pressure has apparently had some effect, however. The contract Russia signed with Iran last January included a protocol for selling gas centrifuges for enriching uranium that could be used to produce weapons-grade nuclear material. In May, President Boris Yeltsin overruled MinAtom and nixed the protocol.
Russians will earn about $800 million for the first reactor, complete a plant begun and abandoned by the Germans in the 1970s for an undetermined price, then build two more plants for about $1 billion. In addition, Iran recently agreed to buy about $30 million of nuclear fuel per year from Russia.
A Russian sale that may become even more controversial in the West is a reported negotiation to build a couple of nuclear reactors in India. Since India has not adopted the full-scope nuclear safeguards against proliferation of the International Atomic Energy Association, it would violate international agreements for a member of the nuclear suppliers group, such as Russia, to sell them nuclear technology. Yet in nuclear trading circles, the Russia-India deal is reported to be fairly advanced.
One industry watcher in the West, sums up the currently dominant Russian attitude toward nuclear nonproliferation with a reference to Russia's nuclear czar at Min-Atom: ''In the person of Mikhailov, MinAtom would sell about anything to anybody for the right price.''
Russia has less controversial contracts, or bids, to complete or build nuclear plants in China, Cuba, and Slovakia.
The plants Russia builds now have nothing in common with the old Chernobyl design that brought environmental catastrophe to northern Ukraine and much of Belarus. None of the Chernobyl-type reactors is still operating outside the former Soviet Union.
The newest generation of pressurized light-water reactors is considered a high-quality design by Western nuclear engineers, and in fact plant-worker radiation levels are reportedly lower than in many Western plants. But the Russian ones still have weaknesses on the safety front.
Russian instrumentation and controls do not meet Western safety standards, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington. Also, construction and operator training are more uneven. ''Consistently inconsistent,'' an NEI spokesman calls them.
''They have not been as concerned about safety as in the West,'' says Dr. Potter, and they have not developed a culture of safety around their plants.
The Finns have a Soviet-designed plant, however, that uses Western controls and instrumentation, as well as training and safety procedures, with apparent success.