RUSSIA'S economic crisis and the need for reliable energy sources are pushing the country to build new atomic power plants, ending a construction moratorium imposed after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Under a Russian government resolution, issued in late December, construction is scheduled to be completed on three new nuclear reactors by the end of 1995. Feasibility studies are also planned to consider further building through 2010. At the same time, Atomic Energy Ministry officials are pressing for legislation that would guarantee nuclear power's future.
The government's decision has been denounced by environmentalists worried that an expansion of nuclear power will increase the risk of an accident like the one at Chernobyl in Ukraine, in which a reactor exploded, killing thousands and exposing tens of thousands more to harmful doses of radiation.
"Economically and ecologically it is a bankrupt idea," says Dmitry Litvinov, a Moscow-based activist for the environmental group Greenpeace.
Statistics on Russian nuclear safety are a cause for concern among environmentalists. In 1992, there were 205 "incidents" reported at Russian nuclear power plants, up from 172 the year before. In addition, the Chernobyl plant suffered two fires earlier this month, though both were quickly extinguished and no radiation leaked. Officials assure safety
Energy Ministry officials play down the potential threat to the environment, saying the planned new plants will have the latest safety features.
"All our stations have been certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency," Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Reshetnikov said at a news conference last week. "Even the old reactors, not to mention the new ones, have been classified as safe and reliable."
But leading industrial nations are also concerned and have set up a fund to improve the safety of reactors in eastern Europe, including Russia. Most recently, on Jan. 28, France and Germany pledged $110 million to the fund over the next three years.
Russia's economic crisis has led to the breakdown of old energy supply networks, especially in the oil and gas industries, adding to the already significant problems faced by Russian industry. Energy Ministry officials say the construction of new reactors would help alleviate the energy problem, and thus would help reverse the current trend of plunging industrial production.
But Mr. Litvinov of Greenpeace argues that energy policy should not focus on expanding supplies. Increasing Russia's nuclear power potential will merely encourage industry to keep on wasting resources, he says.
"There will be less incentive on raising efficiency in industry," he says. "Instead of increasing the supply, they should be working on cutting demand. If this country is going to go anywhere, it has to become more efficient."
Russia now has nine nuclear power stations operating 28 reactors. According to the Atomic Energy Ministry's expansion plan, the three nuclear reactors scheduled to be completed by 1995 would add about 3 million kilowatts to existing capacity, currently about 20 million kilowatts.
The new reactors would be completed at existing nuclear plants in Kursk, about 250 miles south of Moscow; Kalinin, about 100 miles north of Moscow; and Balakovo, on the Volga River. Work on the new reactors began under plans approved before 1985, but the Chernobyl disaster brought construction to a halt.
By 2010, the Atomic Energy Ministry hopes to bring as many as 23 more reactors on line. Hard-hit by energy shortages, the Russian Far East is a prime target for nuclear power development, officials say. But they add that the approval of ecological feasibility studies is required before construction begins. Economy threatens plans
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the realization of the Atomic Energy Ministry's plans is Russia's poor economy. About 33 billion rubles (roughly $58 million) have been allocated for 1993 for construction on the three new reactors. But projections for following years are up in the air.
"We can't say what it will cost in 1994 because of inflation," Mr. Reshetnikov says. Inflation in 1992 was estimated at more than 2,000 percent.
The budgetary problem only underscores the folly of the plan, Litvinov asserts. "These people [atomic energy officials] are just trying to defend their own future," he said. "What we're seeing is a bunch of people who are lobbying and are being very successful at it."