Russia's Troubled Nuclear Plants

March 30, 1992

The openness with which Russian officials responded to last Tuesday's failure in its Leningradskaya nuclear power station is refreshing. Instead of the stonewalling seen during the Chernobyl disaster, officials of the former Soviet Union's nuclear power agency readily acknowledged they had a problem. More revealing was the fact that Finnish nuclear specialists were already at the plant, monitoring emissions in another safety-related project. These independent specialists reported, reassuringly, that the release of radioactivity following the failure of a graphite reactor tube in the plant near St. Petersburg was relatively minor.

Less reassuring, though, is the fact that the problem reactor, an RBMK model similar to Chernobyl's graphite-moderated reactor, vented gases to the outside air. Russian officials said a filtering system had removed most of the radioactivity, but like the Chernobyl plant, Leningradskaya is not equipped with containment sufficient to keep a major breakdown from spewing radioactivity across the countryside. In the former Soviet Union, 16 reactors use the RBMK design; all of them have been criticized by Western experts as unsafe, poorly maintained and less than carefully operated.

Tuesday's failure intensified pressures from Western officials to shut down such reactors. In doing so, however, Western leaders are actually drawing up new job specifications for their own national energy programs. That's because the Russians cannot do without the power these plants produce. Forty percent of Russia's electric power comes from nuclear plants. That bTC electricity cannot be replaced without major changes in the power grid serving Eastern Europe.

Chernobyl demonstrated that a runaway nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union posed major risks to people in many Western lands. The St. Petersburg failure demonstrates that Russia's more economically more successful Western neighbors, especially in Scandinavia, have to pitch in to help cut down the risk of nuclear plant accidents.

It is insufficient to simply point out how badly the Soviets' safety standards lagged behind those of the West. Their collection of antiquated nuclear reactors is still on line, pumping out electrical power as well as harboring unacceptable hazards to the people who live in a wide swath nearby. It will take a large measure of international cooperation to help the Russians extricate themselves from the situation in which their former Communist masters have left them. The old Soviet empire was one huge environmental disaster -- polluted rivers, toxic soils, dirty air and unsafe nuclear power.

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