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The East: Nuclear Plant Safety Improved Since Chornobyl

By Anthony Wesolowsky

International officials and nuclear operators and regulators from former Eastern Bloc states are concluding a week-long conference in Vienna today, where they have been discussing nuclear safety issues. RFE/RL correspondent Anthony Wesolowsky is in Vienna and filed this report.

Vienna, 18 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - Western nuclear safety experts say they are convinced that nuclear power plants operating throughout Central and Eastern Europe as well as in the states of the former Soviet Union are much safer than they were at the time of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

That was the main conclusion from more than 200 nuclear operators and regulators from eight former East Bloc states as well as Western nuclear officials gathered this week in Vienna for a conference on strengthening nuclear safety in Eastern Europe. The gathering was hosted by the UN-affiliated nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Sixty seven nuclear reactors generate power throughout the former East bloc. For some countries like Bulgaria and Lithuania, nuclear power provides the bulk of their energy needs. But the Chornobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1986 sparked fears they were unsafe.

The economic collapse in many of the countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to further worries the plants would become even greater safety risks. In 1992, the G-7 strongly recommended the twenty five most dangerous reactors, including the Chornobyl-type RBMK reactor and the VVER-230 reactor, be shut down as soon as possible.

But today, not one has been closed, and a deal with Kyiv to stop operating the Unit 3 reactor at Chornobyl by 2000 seems shaky at best, despite statements to the contrary from both sides. But officials at the conference were encouraged by what they heard from the participants from Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Armenia.

Carol Kessler, a senior coordinator for nuclear safety at the U.S. State Department, chaired the conference. She says Western nuclear officials understand overall economic hardship is the biggest stumbling block to furthering nuclear safety, despite about 260 million Ecus of Western aid. Nevertheless, Kessler and other Western participants to the conference said they were encouraged by developments in three key areas: plant improvements, creating stronger, more independent nuclear regulatory agencies, and better safety analysis reports for the reactors.

"I think in the context of this conference, we have probably seen more progress in many of the countries in all three of these areas than perhaps I would have expected. There are clearly some countries that are farther ahead than others, and I would indicate that those who have been under less Soviet influence in their history are clearly doing better than those who were."

Annick Carnino, of the IAEA's Department of Nuclear Safety, says the nuclear mishap at the U.S.'s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979 spurred Western nuclear officials to rethink issues of nuclear safety. But she says that due to the Berlin Wall, the new thinking never filtered to the former East Bloc states.

"We had to learn from Three Mile Island a lot of things, and especially looking at a lot of other type of precursors and that led us to revise our approach to safety."

Bill Cook of the British Nuclear Regulatory Authority of the United Kingdom says Eastern European nuclear operators have made great strides by creating the safety analysis reports. The reports give a detailed analysis of the workings of a reactor, and more importantly, possible shortcomings in design under different operating circumstances.

"But what I've heard today, I think, in fact during the week generally, some countries, in particular, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia [have made] excellent progress there as far as the safety analysis, and the general safety culture. Russia, there are more political problems there, but progress is being made."

Cook also noted an encouraging sign in Lithuania, where in mid-May regulators forced the shutdown of the world's most-powerful reactors at Ignalina after plant officials failed to carry out a series of reactor improvements demanded by regulators. Cook also said the RBMK reactors at Ignalina achieved another first -- it is the only plant with the Chornobyl-type reactor to undergo a Western-level safety analysis report.

The design shortcomings noted in that 1995 report already have meant greater safety at the plant, according to Eugenijus Uspuras, a Lithuanian nuclear safety official. He cites technical statistics on plant safety:

"If we compare the risk of core damage or severe accident at Ignalina NPP it was in 1996 quite low, about ten to minus five, but now it is reduced about ten times, about ten to minus six."

Despite the encouraging news, doubts over the Soviet-type reactors remain. Last month, the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association issued a report saying the RBMK reactor -- the same type of reactor found at Ignalina -- will never meet Western safety standards despite improvements to its design.

Even though conference participants said Bulgaria's Kozloduy plant is now much safer, the EU recently reiterated calls for its immediate closure.

Among the few sceptics at the conference was Steve Sholly, a senior analyst at the Vienna-based Institute of Risk Research. He told our correspondent that many of the plants have been backfitted with better Western safety and monitoring systems. But Sholly warned that while Eastern nuclear power plants may be better at detecting an accident, much had not changed in actually preventing a mishap.