Despite experts' fears, Russia will keep using Chernobyl-type nuclear reactors

November 08, 1992|By Malcolm W. Browne | Malcolm W. Browne,New York Times News Service

VIENNA, Austria -- Russian nuclear officials have told watchdog group of Western experts that Russia's notorious graphite-core nuclear reactors -- the kind that blew up at Chernobyl in 1986 -- will operate indefinitely. If the West wants to make them safer, it can help pay for improvements, but the reactors will not be shut down.

Officially, the United States has opposed the reactors' continued operation and has sought to discourage or bar financing of measures that would prolong the reactors' lives.

But U.S. and European technical experts acknowledged last week that this position is unrealistic, and that the former Communist countries using the reactors should get all the help the West can afford, because these reactors are essential to the faltering economies of Russia, the Ukraine and the Baltic states.

At a meeting sponsored by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency that ended in Vienna on Thursday, nuclear experts from nine Western countries met with nuclear-power officials of the former Soviet Union on the safety of Soviet Chernobyl-type reactors.

Of 62 Soviet-designed reactors operating in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, 47 are pressurized-water reactors similar in principle to most American types.

American experts believe that although some of the older pressurized-water reactors could be made reasonably safe, all 15 of the Chernobyl-type reactors, called RBMKs, should be scrapped without delay.

The RBMKs are seen as threats not only to their operating crews and nearby communities, but also to much of Western Europe. Millions of Europeans were exposed to fallout from the Chernobyl disaster, possibly suffering long-term health effects, and many Western experts believe it could happen again.

Moreover, the future of nuclear energy itself could be at stake.

"All of us here are acutely aware that another serious nuclear accident could doom nuclear power everywhere, with immense economic consequences for many nations," said Dr. James Guppy of Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.

Realizing that it is unrealistic to expect the RBMKs to be shut down in the near future, organizers called last week's meeting to review Russian documentation that steps have been taken or are planned by Russian administrators to make the reactors safer.

Although neither the Atomic Energy Agency nor the experts it invited to the meeting have regulatory authority over the Russian reactors, their opinions carry weight with international lending agencies from which the Commonwealth of Independent States is seeking assistance.

Some of these agencies insist on enhancement of nuclear power plant safety as a condition for granting credit to the commonwealth.

Western experts who spent the week reviewing Russian

technical reports and data were impressed by the scope of measures adopted or in progress to enhance the safety of RBMKs.

Some improvements adopted by Russian engineers seemed simple. One change was in the "scram" button used in the reactors -- the button that stops the reactor in an emergency.

Before Chernobyl, an operator had to keep his or her finger on this red button for up to a minute to complete the reactor shutdown.

But now the scram is completed by just pushing the button and releasing it.

Western engineers "applauded" this change, as they did scores of others, including a change in the enrichment of the uranium fuel to reduce the chance of a runaway chain reaction. The Russians explained that they had also modified the design of RBMK control rods -- the rods which, when inserted into a reactor core, slow and stop the reaction.

But the consensus of Western experts was that the RBMK (an acronym in Russian for "Reactor, Big Power, Channel Type") has inherent design flaws and probably can never be made as safe as the best Western reactors.

The Russians sharply disagreed. The newest and safest versions of the RBMK are on a par with the most reliable reactors in the West, they said, and have some significant advantages over Western counterparts.

"Like your Western reactors, our oldest ones are our least safe," said Dr. Eugene O. Adamov, who, as chairman of Russia's Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering, is his country's top nuclear power official.

"But development is an evolutionary process, and our newest RBMK designs, we believe, are the safest and best reactors in the world. We certainly intend to pursue RBMK development."

Dr. Ivan Selin, director of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is among the many foreign critics of the RBMK toward whom Dr. Adamov addressed some of his comments.

"Selin told me when he visited us that he just doesn't like RBMK reactors on principle," Dr. Adamov said, "but that's like saying you don't like the looks of a woman.

"It's an emotional reaction, not a scientific assessment. The RBMK is a type of reactor that is not understood in the West, and we can't explain all the technical details of the RBMK to your officials overnight."

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