Nuclear photo opportunity Moscow summit: Gathering of world leaders boosts Yeltsin but may obscure serious debate.

April 20, 1996

TEN YEARS AFTER the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, leaders of the Group of Seven industrial countries are gathered in Moscow to discuss improving atomic safety. Some modest progress is likely to be made. But above all, the Moscow gathering is a photo opportunity in which world leaders endorse the re-election bid of President Boris N. Yeltsin as the least-objectionable of candidates in Russia's June 16 elections.

Even though some scientists estimate that there is approximately a one-in-five chance of a major nuclear reactor accident in the former Soviet sphere in the next 10 years, little has been done to prevent a repetition of Chernobyl. Not one large power reactor has been shut down permanently. "Continuing managerial sloppiness remains, and in many ways has worsened," reports U.S. nuclear power expert Bennett Ramberg.

Reasons for this inertia range from the governmental chaos in the former Soviet Union to public sentiment that discounts radioactive hazards. Chief among them, though, is the enormous expense of disarming the time-bomb of aging, dangerous Soviet-era nuclear plants. According to the World Bank's estimate, replacing them or upgrading them to Western safety levels could cost $24 billion.

Only 11 percent of Russia's electricity is generated by nuclear power. This figure is a far cry from Lithuania's 76 percent or France's 75. What the Russian figure does not reflect, however, is the major population centers' heavy reliance on nuclear energy.

Sixty percent of the power needs of the St. Petersburg region are satisfied by nuclear plants located close to or within the city limits of Russia's second metropolis. Atomic power accounts for 20 percent of Moscow's electricity, making a quick transfer to conventional generation a difficult -- and expensive -- proposition. Add to this the region's political problems. As long as the governmental situations in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union remain unpredictable, no foreign country will be interested in financing a costly nuclear overhaul whose end result is in doubt.

The possibility of another nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union worries many Western countries. Indeed, in many capitals the unsafe power plants are today regarded with more fear and trepidation than communist-era military stockpiles.

Pub Date: 4/20/96

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