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U.S. Expert Urges Closing Chernobyl-type Reactors

  • Robert Lyle

Washington, April 30 (RFE/RL) - An American expert on nuclear reactor design and operation has renewed his plea for financial assistance to Ukraine and other former Soviet states to help remove Chernobyl-type nuclear reactors from operation before more serious accidents occur.

Frank R. Bruce, a former Associate Director of the top U.S. nuclear research facility, the Oak Ridge, Tennessee National Laboratory, says the Soviet-designed Chernobyl-type reactors "are basically unsafe" and that if they continue in operation "there are bound to be more accidents."

Bruce, who first spoke out about the need to remove all the old Soviet designed reactors in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists more than five years ago, reiterated his concern on the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident.

In a letter printed Monday in the Journal of Commerce, a major U.S. business newspaper, Bruce said "desperate economic conditions in Eastern Europe are forcing the countries to run reactors with inadequate staff and training, with jury-rigged spare parts, and with little regulatory oversight."

Bruce wrote that U.S., Japanese and Western European nuclear power industry leaders should be "providing support at the multi-billion-dollar level."

The U.S., Japan and the other nations of the G-7 group of major industrial nations, have pledged up to 3,100 million dollars to aid Ukraine in shutting down the remaining two reactors at the Chernobyl power plant -- a move that will require finding ways to produce enough electricity to meet a large part of Ukraine's power needs.

Bruce told RFE/RL that western nations should be putting much more money into eliminating the old Soviet reactors because another serious accident could easily turn world public opinion so much against nuclear power that other nations would be forced to end their programs. "Every industrial country needs a balanced mix of energy sources," says Bruce, "and every country stands to lose from another Chernobyl-type accident."

The U.S. Department of Energy, in a report which became public late last year, said there were at least 58 reactors of Soviet design still operating throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, many in less than satisfactory condition.

"It's really a very bad situation," says Bruce. "The reactors don't have any containment and if they have an accident, the radioactive materials will be spread around." He says "the physics of the reactors is very unfortunate because they become more critical when you try to shut them down if they're operating at low power."

Bruce says that although he retired many years ago, he keeps in close contact with other nuclear scientists around the world, his old colleagues at the Oak Ridge laboratory and with current nuclear literature.

"I devoted 35 years of my professional life to the development of nuclear power," says Bruce. He says the world's failure to come to the aid of Ukraine and other nations where the reactors are still operating hurts nuclear power everywhere.

"We either put money into fixing this problem now," Bruce wrote in the letter to the editor of the Journal of Commerce, "or risk losing more lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in damage and disruption if another significant accident occurs."

Opponents of nuclear power use the Chernobyl accident to create stories which Bruce says "are ridiculous." But, he says, the "real situation is bad enough" and he wants to "see the world pitch in and do something about it."