Chernobyl in Lithuania?

Experts and operators alike say the Ignalina nuclear reactor - built with Chernobyl blueprints by unskilled conscripts - is a waiting disaster

ON the other side of the globe at the Rio podium, Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis still heard the ticking of a Chernobyl-style time bomb back home - the Ignalina nuclear-power plant.

"If you apply the standards the plant director uses ... you could convince yourself the place is safe. But these standards are as flawed as the design of the reactor itself. It is all flawed. The director speaks in word games," says Anatoly Vezhnevsky, an inspector for the Lithuanian Ministry of Energy. An ethnic Russian, Mr. Vezhnevsky is a former control room computer programmer.

"When you have a job at such a place you have to numb your thoughts, dull your sensibilities - or else you couldn't get up every morning and go to work - not for one second. That's just human nature," says Vezhnevsky.

In the mid-1970s, thousands of Soviet military conscripts were imported to build the Ignalina complex. Two pairs of reactors were scheduled to supply electricity for the expanding industries of Belarus, Latvia, and the Kaliningrad region while Lithuania would use only a quarter of the power. By 1982, two reactors identical to those at Chernobyl were on-line. But Ignalina produced for the Soviets another product besides electricity: enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons. The plant's purpose i s for bombs, not light bulbs.

"You must understand how Ignalina fits into the whole Soviet military and industrial scheme," says Valery Tchaidnovsky, a reactor chamber operator with more than 10 years at the plant. "First of all, military conscripts built it. This means graft, corruption, pilfering, sloppiness. The specifications for the plant which exist on paper are in no way what actually was built. Just look around at anything the Soviet construction conscripts are forced to build - why would you think the quality of Ignalina wou ld be any different? And we had a very low maintenance priority."

"The place is falling apart. It was falling apart before it even came on-line 10 years ago. That there has not been a major accident is because of responsible and capable operators," he says.

Ignalina resembles any large Soviet factory: Worn linoleum, drab paint, a hint of cigarette smoke in the air. The doorways are not quite square, the walls not quite plumb. From a second-story passage between buildings what was supposed to have been the third reactor is visible. More disconcerting than the visual images, Lithuanian authorities now have in custody a former computer programmer who may have introduced a computer virus into the plant's safety program.

In March, a team from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made recommendations concerning several ecological disasters in Lithuania - among them Ignalina.

"The potential is great that what happened at Chernobyl could any day happen here. The construction is so shabby - the plans are the same. And if it does, the entire Scandinavian area, the Baltics, Russia itself, Poland, and Germany would be devastated," said Dr. Valdas Adamkus, EPA Great Lakes chief.

Citing Ignalina as a world problem "whose solutions should be shared internationally," Dr. Adamkus said he would press Washington for funds to further study the safety of the plant. But Mr. Tchaidnovsky, who from Ignalina has seen Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev all come and go, is cynical about more studies.

"We've had plenty of international delegations who pass through, have a press conference and go home. We need a team of experts who will stay here and make sure what needs to get done gets done," he said.

An abrupt closure of the plant, however attractive ecologically, is not an option. Power needs of the region are now tied to Ignalina. Electricity commitments to Russia are linked to a barter for oil. Even the Lithuanian Green Party turned yellow on the shut down of Ignalina. "Forever addicted to its electricity," said a member.

One plan calls for temporary operation of the old plant while a new Swedish-designed station is built. Who pays for a new plant no one is saying. Appeals to the US for technical and financial support to tighten safety for the twin reactors have gone unanswered. Following an accident near St. Petersburg in March, Germany's environmental minister, Klaus Toepfer, leads a European movement to close the plants.

Lithuania alone can't safeguard its reactors. The Baltics were glaringly bypassed from international aid commitments to the old East bloc. The $24 billion feeding trough to be set out by the International Monetary Fund for the former Soviet Union is off-limits to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The republics share a $15 million grant from Washington this year. Mr. Gorbachev collected more during his two- week US lecture tour than Lithuania gets to clean up after him.

Plugging the Baltic region into the West European electricity grid - even if it requires technical and financial wizardry - is the way to go. It is in the best long-term interest of Europe to pay for a few years of electricity and underwrite construction of a state-of-the-art alternate power source for the Baltics. Particularly for Scandinavia and Germany, which would suffer equally if the reactor went, becoming partners in a regional energy plan is a better investment than most of the economic-aid packa ges for business development in Moscow. Western Europe will ultimately pay for Ignalina, one way or the other. The choice is when, and how.

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