Meltdown of Control


Vienna. -- West European governments and nuclear-energy companies are seeking to fill the dangerous vacuum left by the collapse of a central supervisory authority over the civil atomic-power industry of the disintegrated Soviet Union.

Hans Blix, the director general of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, has offered help to the republics joining the Commonwealth of Independent States that has replaced the Soviet Union. Sweden is helping Lithuania establish an independent nuclear-power authority; and British Nuclear Fuels and France's Cogema have opened negotiations with East European countries over the fate of mounting nuclear wastes which Moscow has refused to accept for processing despite its contractual obligation to do so.

At stake is the future of 62 largely obsolete Soviet-designed nuclear-power plants, most of them in Europe and 17 in the fledgling Eastern and Central European democracies. A recent IAEA study identified some of them as the most dangerous on earth.

Another confidential report drawn up by the Central Intelligence Agency reckons that four reactors in the former Soviet Union are functioning in safety conditions even worse than those prevailing at Chernobyl before its disasters.

A quarter of the electricity consumed by the territories of the former Soviet Union west of the Ural mountains is generated by nuclear power. Dr. Blix fears that, in the absence of a central regulatory authority, too much responsibility for the maintenance safety standards will fall on individual plant operators. At times of economic and political stress and growing pressure for power production caused by acute shortages of alternative fuels, this could lead to new nuclear-plant disasters with incalculable consequences.

Chaos in the Soviet nuclear-power industry became evident even before the meltdown of the Kremlin's authority. The German environment minister, Klaus Toepfer, was told in Moscow late in October that the country simply lacked the means to take back spent fuel. The original contracts for the construction of Soviet nuclear reactors in Eastern Europe included firm provision for the return of spent fuel for reprocessing.

Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria -- the countries saddled with the most dangerous Soviet-built reactors abroad -- must find their own solutions.

Mr. Toepfer responded with a call for a joint Western approach to a problem of global proportions, probably involving all the nuclear plants of the former Soviet Union as well as the democracies of Eastern and Central Europe.

Germany has just closed down the notorious Greifswald nuclear plant for safety reasons.

Spare parts from Greifswald are destined for the Kozloduy plant in northern Bulgaria which was described in the IAEA study as a "nuclear time bomb" due to inadequate safety equipment, poor staff training standards and frequently recurring radiation leaks. The makeshift waste-storage facilities near the Bulgarian plant on the Danube are very dangerous and likely in any case to reach capacity almost immediately.

Czechoslovakia, whose Bohunice plant was also condemned by the IAEA study and by safety investigators from neighboring Austria, is also storing spent nuclear fuel near the reactors in conditions causing grave concern. The store is unsafe, according to an unpublished report commissioned by Greenpeace, the environmental pressure group, because the concrete used in the construction is not waterproof and the storage tanks were not designed for long-term use.

Thomas Land is an author and foreign correspondent who writes on global affairs.

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