Making East-Bloc Reactors Safe

WESTERN governments are on the brink of spending billions of dollars to prevent a nuclear-reactor accident in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. The aim is worthy, but the money may not be wisely spent, and much of it may end up in the pockets of Western reactor manufacturers. Better, cheaper solutions are available.

A reactor rescue plan has been drawn up for presentation to the seven major industrial democracies at their annual summit meeting in Munich, Germany in July. Its price tag will be at least $10 billion and perhaps much more. It will involve refitting some reactors with modern safety devices and shutting down others, with provision for alternative electricity sources to replace the lost generating capacity. Funds will come from government grants and loans from government-backed banks and, therefore, ultima tely from Western taxpayers.

Germany and France have taken a lead role in preparing and promoting this plan. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has helped to prepare the plan and hopes to be involved in implementing it, jointly with the Commission of the European Community. Western European leaders have been advocating a rescue plan of some kind, although it is not yet clear that the version to be offered in Munich will meet general approval. Washington has made encouraging noises about the plan but believes that it will be more costly than the German government claims.

Reactor manufacturers have actively promoted the plan, and their influence is skewing its content toward their particular interests, which are not identical with those of Western taxpayers or Eastern countries. Their interests coincide in preventing an accident, which could harm Eastern and Western citizens directly and harm reactor manufacturers indirectly by further reducing public support for nuclear power.

However, public interest dictates that the problem be solved less expensively and to the betterment of economic development in Eastern countries. The reactor vendors, by contrast, want orders for themselves, either for nuclear technology or for other electricity-generating equipment, which is often made by affiliated businesses.

The IAEA, as presently constituted, cannot be trusted to provide a balanced plan. Its mandate includes both promoting nuclear energy and serving as a watchdog over nuclear safety and nonproliferation controls. IAEA officials have revealed that the agency's interest in a reactor rescue plan is motivated by a desire to protect Western reactor vendors.

A cost-effective plan will, above all, emphasize using indigenous capabilities and resources. The Eastern countries have suffered from decades of economic mismanagement, but they have thousands of skilled engineers and an extensive industrial infrastructure. A partnership with Western businesses and governments would allow those capabilities to be applied to the reactor problem.

NEXT, a good plan will maximize the efficiency with which energy resources are used. The former communist economies are notorious for their energy inefficiency, but that cloud contains a silver lining. Correcting present inefficiencies could, at a relatively low cost, free up enough electricity to allow the most dangerous reactors to be quickly shut down. Western expertise and technology are needed to realize this potential, but in partnership with local enterprises.

A good plan will also help Eastern factories convert from military to domestic production. Russia is strong in military jet engines, a capability that could be quickly turned to producing gas turbine power plants that could substitute for unsafe reactors. If that potential is not harnessed, the factories will actively seek military sales, to the detriment of Western security.

A plan with these features would deserve strong support from Western governments and taxpayers. Indications are, however, that the present plan is unsatisfactory. If implemented, it will benefit a narrow sector of Western business but will not exploit all the opportunities available in the East.

Moreover, because of its cost, there is a very real possibility that it will not be fully implemented. Governments may nominally approve it at the Munich summit but, faced with the task of actually funding the plan, drag their feet. In that case, the threat of a reactor accident would be unabated. It would be better to make sure that the plan that is initially agreed to is the best, most cost-effective one.

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