West Tries to Contain Fallout From Russia's Nuclear Legacy

IN Bulgaria, the government is restarting a nuclear-power plant so flawed that France offered to provide electricity if Sofia kept the facility off-line.

In Armenia, officials are powering up a controversial reactor that lacks a containment structure, is in an earthquake and war zone, and has significant structural problems.

In Cuba, two Soviet-era reactors may be completed with the help of Russian engineers and foreign investors - while harboring design flaws and lacking trained staff, critics say.

Like a nuclear Humpty Dumpty, the fallen Soviet Union has left pieces of its atomic-energy program scattered across the map.

As a result, industrial countries are working, with growing urgency, to help nations that inherited Soviet-designed plants install or restore key technical and procedural safeguards.

The urgency is driven by the dismal safety record and deficiencies of some reactor designs as well as the fear of cross-border contamination in the event of another Chernobyl-like disaster. The world's nuclear states also realize that such an event could provide the coup de grace to their nuclear-power programs.

But policing the problem is no easy task. Third-world countries, eager to boost their economies, are avid customers for the cheap and plentiful energy that nuclear power plants provide. Russia, a key supplier, is aggressively marketing its know-how in an effort to obtain hard currency - and without, critics charge, sufficient concern for antiproliferation and technical safeguards.

At the 1992 G-7 summit, industrialized countries decided to tackle the issue with a plan to upgrade the most risky plants, train new plant operators, and help establish laws and agencies to oversee nuclear energy. They also promised to investigate alternative energy sources.

But the effort has not made as much progress as some analysts would like.

''The grade in terms of concern is very high,'' says Robert Ebel, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. ''But in terms of money dispatched, it's difficult to give a passing grade.'' The nearly $900 million spent so far ''is not very much when you look at the magnitude of the problem.''

A set of priorities

One hint of that scope comes from a US Department of Energy report completed in May. Conducted by the DOE's Office of Energy Intelligence for internal use, the report identifies nine Soviet-era reactors as the most dangerous. These include the remaining reactors at Chernobyl, as well as sites in Lithuania, Russia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Armenia.

The report's critics, which include some DOE officials, say that much of the study relies on old information and fails to account for later safety improvements. Yet it highlights troublesome issues that still surround two key reactor types.

One reactor, the RBMK, was involved in the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Fifteen of these reactors are operating in Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and on a smaller scale at Bilibino in the Russian Far East. Despite post-Chernobyl upgrades, RBMKs rate high on the worry list. The reactor lacks a containment structure, adequate instrumentation and fire suppression, as well as key safety backups. Since it began operation in 1977, according to the DOE study, Chernobyl has averaged one serious accident every five years. The latest occurred in 1991, when a fire at Unit 2 knocked out the plant's cooling system, leading to a near meltdown of the reactor core.

The second type, the VVER, is closer to Western designs. Some 33 VVERs are in operation throughout Russia and Eastern Europe. But the earliest models also lack containment structures and have inadequate instrumentation, fire-protection, and emergency-cooling systems. In addition, concern is growing about the steel vessels housing the reactors at older sites. Over time, exposure to radiation leaves the vessels more brittle and less able to withstand strains from sharp changes in temperature. In the United States, the Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant in Massachusetts has shut down permanently because of the expense of dealing with embrittlement.

One focus of the international effort has been fire protection, according to Dan Griessing, director of the DOE's Soviet-Design Reactor Safety Program. ''This is not high-tech stuff,'' he says, noting that plants lacked even the basics of sprinklers, hoses, and smoke detectors. ''They used thick plastic sheets to control dust and contamination. Plastic is a tremendous fire load in a plant. Their fire doors were not rated for a two-hour load, and they were poorly fitting.'' A suitable Ukraine-made firedoor should be ready for installation soon, he says.

In other cases, plants lacked basic emergency power supplies to run the instruments that monitor the condition of a reactor. ''We found that Kozloduy, in certain accident scenarios, didn't have a dependable, on-site source of DC current,'' says a Clinton administration official of a Bulgarian plant. ''So we provided diesel generators. Not a sexy deliverable, but badly needed.''

Yet for all the technical concerns, ''the main issues are still a safety culture and the infrastructure to support it,'' says Kevin Whattam, a spokesman for the international nuclear safety program at the Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Richland, Wash.

This has led to operator exchanges under the auspices of the World Association of Nuclear Operators. It has also led to efforts to design and upgrade control-room simulators, as well as the installation of computers to help operators evaluate a plant's condition at all times.

The human factor

Part of the reason for the program's slow progress, say some analysts, is the level of detail into which countries have had to delve to effect changes. The details range from determining adequate staffing levels so that crews can undergo periodic retraining to changes in administrative and management procedures. ''How do you turn over a shift or tag out equipment for maintenance or what logs do you use when you make your inspection rounds - these are the kinds of issues we face,'' Mr. Griessing says.

''The human factor is a huge issue,'' agrees Miriam Bowling, an associate with the Natural Resources Defense Council's nuclear program in Washington, D.C. She points out that broader economic conditions also play a vital role in safety. ''At the Kola power plant in Russia, the plant has been unable to pay salaries,'' she says. ''There have been strikes, and even threats to burn down the plant.''

These events, mirroring the state of morale at many Russian plants, led the authors of the DOE report to conclude that the state of nuclear power in Russia may be more perilous now than before Chernobyl.

While acknowledging the strides made to upgrade the safety of Soviet-era reactors, Ms. Bowling adds, ''There have been no strides in getting the unsafe reactors to shut down.''

Last month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report on efforts to improve nuclear safety in Russia. The report faults aid efforts as underfunded and duplicative and calls for a 10-year, $20-billion-to-$30-billion effort, with participants having clearly defined roles. That may be hard to achieve, given tight budgets in Europe and the US. In Washington, where some lawmakers see the program as ''welfare'' for the US nuclear industry, the DOE sought $76 million for nuclear-safety programs in the former East bloc. Congress's latest reconciliation bill holds only $30 million.

The issue of long-term commitment cuts both ways. Says Mr. Whattam: ''We can put all the fire protection equipment in, but what happens when the extinguishers run out?''

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