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The East: Nuclear Plant Safety Improving

By Anthony Wesolowsky

This week in Vienna, more than 200 nuclear operators and regulators from eight former Eastern Bloc states are gathering to share the problems and successes they have had tackling nuclear safety issues. Also in attendance are officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency -- which is hosting the conference -- plus others from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Union and other pan-European agencies that have worked with the East to improve nuclear safety.

Vienna, 16 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In 1986, the world was taught a chilling lesson about the shortcomings of Soviet-designed nuclear reactors when Unit 4 at Ukraine's Chornobyl power station exploded and spewed radiation across a wide swath of Europe.

The accident prompted fears that the 67 Soviet-designed reactors in operation throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself were fundamentally flawed and needed to be repaired, if not shut down altogether.

Prompted by the Chornobyl disaster, the G-7 group of major industrialized nations in 1992 recommended that the 25 most dangerous Soviet-designed reactors in operation -- particularly two older reactor types known as the RBMK and the VVER-230 -- should not operate any longer than absolutely necessary. The seven Western nations also urged safety upgrades at safer Soviet-designed power stations.

Eight years later, however, not one of the suspect Soviet-designed nuclear power stations has been closed. Even an agreement between the G-7 and Kyiv to close the remaining functioning reactors at Chornobyl by next year faces an uncertain future.

Lars Larsson is the director of the EBRD's Nuclear Safety Department. He told our correspondent in Vienna that the world community's first mistake was underestimating how long economic and energy-sector reform would take in the former Communist states:

"One of the most important things also [was] the economic development of these countries has been much, much slower than originally anticipated. And with the slowdown of economic development there also goes, unfortunately, the slowdown of nuclear safety. They all go along. For instance, if you have economic problems, and it is not possible to pay salaries to the operators, of course this is a safety concern."

Luke Lederman is a nuclear safety official with the International Atomic Energy Agency. He told RFE/RL that many of the most-pressing improvements have finally been carried out at most of the region's plants.

Lederman and other Western officials stress that some of the biggest changes have come in the so-called "safety culture" at nuclear power plants. In other words, Lederman says operators at nuclear power stations in Eastern and Central Europe and in the former Soviet Union are doing a better, safer and more careful job.

Lederman said nuclear regulatory agencies have also been given more power and autonomy, making their job of monitoring nuclear safety much more effective.

The EBRD's Larsson singled out Armenia as having made some of the greatest strides in the past four years toward improving its nuclear regulatory regime. Armenia's two Soviet-designed VVER-230 reactors at Medzamor were shut down in 1989 after a devastating earthquake prompted fears of a nuclear disaster because of their proximity to a fault line.

In November 1997, Yerevan restarted Unit 2 at the Medzamor plant. Vartan Nersesyan of Armenia's Nuclear Regulatory Authority told RFE/RL that safety upgrades have been made at the plant to protect it against seismic activity. But he said the country has no current plans to restart Unit 1.

"The situation was analyzed, the system was re-evaluated and improvements were made accordingly."

Like Armenia, Bulgaria is equipped with the controversial VVER-230 Soviet-designed reactor. There are four of them at the country's Kozloduy nuclear power plant, along with two of the more advanced Soviet-designed VVER-1000's.

Unlike the VVER-1000, the VVER-230 reactor does not have an adequate containment unit. In the event of a nuclear disaster, radiation could leak into the atmosphere. Recently, the European Union renewed its pleas for Bulgaria to shut down Kozloduy, considered one of the riskiest nuclear power plants in Eastern Europe.

But Grigory Kastchiev of the Bulgarian Nuclear Regulatory Agency told our correspondent that there have been more than 1,000 recent safety upgrades at Kozloduy's four VVER-230 reactors at a cost of $100 million. He said the country is planning another $150 million worth of upgrades. He said Sofia has no plans to shut any of the reactors down soon.

"The strategy plan of the Bulgarian State Electric Company is to operate Units 1 and 2 at least until 2005, and Units 3 and 4 until at least 2012. This is really a necessity from the energy situation in Bulgaria and the stability of the country."

Bulgarian officials also say the western-based Westinghouse company has won a $200 million contract to upgrade the two VVER-1000 reactors at Kozloduy.

Westinghouse secured similar contracts in 1995 to modernize the two uncompleted nuclear reactors at the controversial Temelin nuclear power station in the Czech Republic.

Officials from the Czech state electricity utility, CEZ, told the Vienna conference that Temelin -- which is already facing cost overruns and delays -- will incorporate state-of-the-art safety measures. Czech nuclear regulators also announced safety improvements at the country's only working nuclear power station at Dukovany.