Russia's Nuclear Time Bomb

April 08, 1993

One of the disastrous legacies of communist mismanagement in the former Soviet Union is an environment teetering on the brink of disaster. Massive air and water pollution, soil degradation, deforestation and desertification are only some of the problems left behind by the country's deposed communist rulers. The full extent of the crisis is only gradually coming to be understood.

This week's radiation leak in Siberia is another reminder of this ticking time bomb. Although not as alarming as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the explosion at a plant producing plutonium for nuclear weapons contaminated nearby forests and sent a radioactive cloud toward the giant Yenisei river. Authorities acknowledged the accident was the worst since Chernobyl, but denied it was a cause for wider concern. Ecology activists, though, predicted pollution and contamination of rivers would make the vicinity unsafe for human habitation.

Nothing worries Western experts more than the safety of aging power plants and other nuclear production facilities in the former Soviet Union. Since Chernobyl, occasional scares have underscored those fears. In March a year ago, an accident at a nuclear power station near St. Petersburg resulted in the release of radioactive iodine, causing jitters in neighboring Finland and Estonia.

Nevertheless, Russian officials have told international regulatory agencies that nuclear power is so critical for their country that they cannot afford to decommission the aging graphite-core reactors. Such reactors, similar to those at Chernobyl, account for 11 out of Russia's total of 24 power-generating nuclear reactors. If Western countries are worried about the facilities, they ought to pay for safety improvements but the reactors themselves will not be shut down, Russians have said.

Despite the Chernobyl disaster, radiation is still not widely understood by ordinary people in the former Soviet Union. That is partially due to obfuscation and systematic discounting of dangers of radioactivity under the communists. Ecology groups are now raising the issue. But authorities, having their hands full in dealing with other expensive problems, have shown little urgency.

Helping the republics of the former Soviet Union with their nuclear power plant problems is a task European governments above all should undertake. But the U.S. administration, too, ought to keep it on the priority list, not by preaching but by trying to come up with solutions that will lessen reliance on the Chernobyl-type reactors.

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