VIENNA, Austria -- The United States and its allies are developing a strategy for closing the Chernobyl nuclear reactors permanently and helping to make Russian-designed nuclear reactors safer, officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency here say.
The centerpiece is a package of Western aid that is expected to be approved, at least in part, after the meeting of the Group of Seven industrial nations in Naples, Italy, this week. The money would enable Ukraine to close all four reactors at the Chernobyl site and complete construction of up to five new, safer nuclear power plants.
There was an agreement in principle by the 12 European Union countries two weeks ago to supply up to $600 million for nuclear safety in Ukraine. Energy officials from the United States and Ukraine released a report Friday identifying new energy sources and conservation measures as alternatives to the electricity supplied by Chernobyl.
The emerging strategy also involves two new international agreements intended to make Russian reactors safer. One would encourage Western nuclear companies to upgrade Russian reactors by limiting the companies' liability for future accidents. A second, to be completed in September, sets common standards for reactor safety codes.
"All three developments fit together," said Morris Rosen, the U.S. physicist who is the IAEA's assistant director general for reactor safety. "We are finally getting somewhere."
After first agreeing to close down the whole Chernobyl plant in 1991, five years after the disaster there, the Ukrainian Parliament dismayed the West by deciding last October that energy needs required the country to retain the two functioning reactors and repair a third closed after a fire in 1991.
In March, Hans Blix, director general of the IAEA, protested the decision, telling President Leonid Kravchuk that "international levels of safety are not being met at Chernobyl."
A mission sent to Chernobyl by the agency said the sarcophagus encasing the burned-out No. 4 reactor, which exploded in 1986, spewing radioactive debris across much of Europe, was in danger of collapsing, posing a new radiation hazard.
It also found a serious shortage of spare parts and trained staff at the two functioning reactors. Some 40 percent of Chernobyl's top technicians have left in recent years, mainly because of falling living standards.
Experts from a dozen countries met in April to discuss the report, and a clear majority called for Chernobyl to be shut down as soon as possible, warning that it remained a threat to the rest of Europe.
But the Ukrainian delegation said it could not afford to close the plant until the five new reactors have been completed.
The Ukrainians also said they would need some $196 million in foreign assistance to complete the first three on schedule by 1996, while finishing the two other units by 1999 would bring the bill to some $1.2 billion.
zTC While eastern European countries are asking for foreign help in making their power reactors safer, many Western nuclear companies are reluctant to become involved until their legal liability for future accidents is clarified.
The World Bank has estimated they could earn up to $24 billion upgrading the 59 Russian-designed reactors in operation and 10 more under construction when demand for new reactors in the West is almost nonexistent.
In an effort to overcome this obstacle to nuclear trade, officials here say the Clinton administration will press for an agreement by next spring on a new convention that would shield nuclear construction companies from accident damage suits by putting primary responsibility for safety on the reactor operator.