Power problem faces divided Czechoslovakia Spent nuclear fuel may pose danger

November 22, 1992|By New York Times News Service

DUKOVANY, Czechoslovakia -- With the division o Czechoslovakia into two countries scheduled for Jan. 1, both prospective nations are bracing for potentially grave problems arising from the fission of atoms.

Under former Soviet custody, a united Czechoslovakia operated two large nuclear power plants with relatively few administrative snags or public opposition. The Russians supplied most of the hardware and nuclear fuel, and when the dangerously radioactive fuel was used up, it was simply sent back to the Soviet Union for reprocessing.

But Russia is no longer taking Czechoslovakia's spent fuel for reprocessing, and for the time being, the Czech and Slovak republics will be stuck with a rising mountain of that dangerous material.

The Czech plant at Dukovany and the Slovak plant at Jaslovske Bohunice continue to produce more spent fuel than they can safely handle.

Dr. Karel Wagner, director of Czechoslovakia's atomic energy commission, said that if solutions to the spent-fuel problem are not quickly found, Czechoslovakia's entire nuclear power system, which supplies 28 percent of the nation's electricity, might have to be shut down.

The economic consequences for both countries would be severe, and the shortfall in electric power would affect Western Europe, which purchases considerable amounts of Czech power.

A site at the Bohunice plant in Slovakia has been used as a temporary storage center for spent fuel from the Bohunice and Dukovany plants. But Slovak authorities refuse to accept any more spent fuel from the Czech side. Officials in both prospective nations agree, in any case, that the Bohunice site is already full.

In what is soon to be the Czech Republic, officials have marked out a site at this sprawling reactor plant where spent fuel from Dukovany and a new Czech plant at Temelin, which is scheduled to begin operations in 1993, could be stored for up to 30 years.

Many American experts, including Ivan Selin, director of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have inspected the Dukovany plant and pronounced it one of the best run plants in Eastern Europe.

The plant supervisors acknowledge that Dukovany lacks the reinforced-concrete containments that house American reactors to prevent radioactive material from escaping in case of an accident.

But the Soviet-designed reactors at Dukovany were built with "perfect substitutes" for containment, the management claims. Any radioactive gas or dust that might escape from the reactor in an accident would be passed through a "bubbler tower," in which dangerous substances would be separated by bubbling them through successive trays of water.

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