AS Russia struggles to revive its economy and meet its energy needs for future development, the debate is heating up over the fate of nuclear power.
Some foreign experts and environmentalists are pushing for the closure of Russian nuclear reactors, saying the designs of the power generators are unsafe. They express special concern about so-called RBMK reactors - one of which exploded at Chernobyl in 1986. Up to 8,000 people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster, according to official Ukrainian estimates.
"The RBMK reactors are a disaster waiting to happen," said Stewart Boyle of the environmental organization Greenpeace. "The RBMK reactors can never be made adequately safe."
Officials at Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, however, are disputing the Greenpeace claims. Ministry spokesman Sergei Yermakov calls the RMBK reactors among "the safest in the world," adding that atomic power is a relatively cheap and reliable source of energy.
There are 15 RBMK nuclear reactors in operation throughout the former Soviet Union and four more are under construction. The reactors regained the spotlight following an minor accident at the Sosnovy Bor Atomic Power Station near St. Petersburg in March.
In the eyes of many Russian officials, economic necessity outweighs the operational hazards of keeping the RBMK atomic power generators on line.
Nuclear power provides about 12 percent of Russia's energy supplies. Mr. Yermakov argued that without nuclear power the Russian economy would completely crash, as the country currently does not have the ability or the resources to come up with alternative fuels.
In a draft of a 20-year program for development unveiled last week, Atomic Energy Ministry officials said they planned in the first decade to upgrade outdated equipment and greatly boost production in the next decade. In addition, acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar said in March that construction on several unfinished atomic plants should resume.
While announcing the intention to keep the nuclear power generators operating, Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Sidorenko stressed at a news conference that safety remained a priority. But he added that a lack of finances could hamper plans to upgrade.
The Group of Seven leading industrial nations are considering an aid package to improve the Russian atomic energy safety standards. One Western official said G-7 leaders, scheduled to meet in Munich next week, could make up to $800 million available to Russia to help upgrade the nuclear sector.
Such a strategy is folly, said Greenpeace's Mr. Boyle.
"It's essential that Russian and foreign investment not be wasted on dangerous and outdated equipment," he said at a news conference Tuesday. "It's time to make a break with the past and move forward with an efficient energy system."
Greenpeace presented a plan to Russian parliament officials Monday that would overhaul the energy supply system, while phasing out RMBK nuclear reactors. Boyle asserted that such a program could be completed within five years.
"What's important in the plan is the cost of achieving the phaseout of RBMKs is equal to, or less than, continuing to run the RBMKs and spending money to improve safety," Boyle said. Russia can make up for supplies from closed RBMK reactors, he added, since almost 33 percent of Russian energy output goes to waste.
The Greenpeace energy plan was warmly received by Russian parliament officials but is vigorously opposed by the Atomic Energy Ministry, which "is fighting for survival," Boyle said.
Some nuclear advocates in Russia insist the West has a hidden economic motive for wanting to close Russian reactors: to corner the nuclear-energy market.
Greenpeace and Western nuclear energy officials dismiss the economic argument. John Willis of Greenpeace said atomic energy was "economically and politically too expensive. There is no world market for nuclear power."