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East: Temelin Refocuses Attention On Soviet-Era Reactors

The start-up of the Temelin nuclear plant in the Czech Republic has re-focused attention on the safety of Soviet-designed reactors. It's been almost 15 years since the accident at the Soviet-designed reactor at Chornobyl. But to date, with the exception of the Chornobyl reactor, not one of the most dangerous types of Soviet reactors has been closed down anywhere in Eastern Europe -- including in some EU candidate countries.

Prague, 24 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Two years after the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine, countries in the then Eastern bloc requested the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, to conduct safety probes of their own Soviet-designed reactors.

In 1991, the IAEA -- a nuclear watchdog affiliated with the United Nations -- released its findings. It said the VVER-230, an older-style Soviet reactor had some 100 safety defects, 60 of which it labeled very serious. The IAEA also called for the immediate closure of all 15 RBMK reactors-- the same type found at Chornobyl.

As a result of the IAEA warnings, leading Western countries -- through the Group of Seven -- agreed on a program for improving nuclear safety in Eastern Europe. They identified reactors as belonging to two types: those that could be safely upgraded and those that should be shut down. The RBMK and VVER-230 fell into the latter category.

But in the almost 15 years since the Chornobyl accident, not one of the two most-dangerous reactor types has been closed -- except one unit at Chornobyl. In fact, in Central Europe four new reactors have gone online and in Russia, three more RBMK reactors have been started up. Plans to shut Chornobyl in December could still be put on hold.

Part of the reason for the continuing use of old Soviet reactors is that some countries still heavily rely on the power they supply. Lithuania's Ignalina reactor, which uses the RBMK technology, supplies as much as 85 percent of the country's energy.

But part of the problem has also been with the European Union, which has sent out conflicting signals on candidate countries' use of nuclear power.

Those opposed to nuclear power were originally hoping the EU accession process could prod candidates states to shut down their dangerous reactors. All told, there are 24 nuclear reactors in the eastern accession countries (including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia). The most worrisome reactors are found in Bulgaria, at Kozloduy, Bohunice in Slovakia, and at Lithuania's Ignalina plant.

Agenda 2000 -- the European Commission's blueprint for EU expansion -- does affirm the EU's desire to shut down the troublesome reactors as soon as possible. However, it does not spell out any actual nuclear safety regulations.

Furthermore, there are no EU-wide safety standards. Rules are set by each government. That was underscored in a recent case involving the Czech Republic's new Temelin reactor when EU Expansion Commissioner Guenter Verheugen stated that nuclear safety would be left to each country to work out.

Within the commission, a so-called "working party on atomic questions" is now trying to develop a joint strategy to address the issue of nuclear safety in candidate countries.

John Paul Decaestecker heads the unit assisting the commission presidency on nuclear guidelines. He says the issue of nuclear safety in candidate countries is still open and that no country has been given what he calls a "blank check" to develop nuclear power.

"The negotiating chapters for these particular countries -- so, energy, which encompasses nuclear safety -- these negotiating chapters are not closed, which means simply that nobody at council level in the EU [has] so far decided to give a blank check to the Czech Republic -- or any other applicant country for that matter -- regarding energy in general, nuclear safety in particular."

FORATOM, the nuclear industry's lobbying group in Brussels, says many of the problems will be solved once reactors can be retro-fitted to meet Western safety standards. An example of this is the Czech Temelin reactor, which was originally designed in the Soviet Union and later fitted out to meet Western standards by the U.S. Westinghouse Corporation.

FORATOM's Schmidt-Kuster says many of the reactors already, or soon will, meet Western safety standards:

"We have come to the conclusion that everything possible has been done or will be done in the near future to bring these power plants to levels which are comparable to what we have in Western Europe." Friends of the Earth and other international environmental groups opposed to nuclear power disagree. They say that any plans to refit old reactors with new safety equipment simply give problem reactors a new lease on life.

In fact, there already has been some foot-dragging on shutting down eight troublesome reactors in Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Lithuania. Units one and two at Kozloduy were initially set to be closed in 1997 -- now the date is set for 2003. Unit one at Ignalina should have closed two years ago. Now it's 2005. Unit 2, set to close in 2002, now is scheduled to be shut down in 2009. Bohunice's units 1 and 2 should have been shut down this year. Now closure is expected in 2006 or 2008.

A 1995 U.S. Department of Energy reported rated Bohunice as one of the most dangerous nuclear power plants in Europe. But the IAEA's spokesman David Kyd says efforts by the German company Siemens has led to vast improvements.

"Number one, Bohunice has had tremendous investment directed at it, and the Slovak regulatory authority is one of the most rigorous in Eastern and Central Europe. And we have considerable admiration for what they have achieved there. Nevertheless, the V1 units -- there are two of them which are the oldest in Slovakia -- do seem slated for premature retirement because of international criticism. But we happen to know because there's a group of operators of the early generation VVER reactors that you've mentioned which incorporates a number of countries, and in that context the V1 units are regarded as those that have had the most money spent on them to improve their safety levels."

Tobias Munchmeyer, an anti-nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace, points out that East European countries use short-term safety upgrades financed by the West to argue that their plants are safe.

"That was what happened at Bohunice, and what has happened in a way in Bulgaria, with Kozloduy, because these reactors were agreed to close in 1997 and 1998."

Anti-nuclear activists argue the West has not adequately funded alternative energy sources. The EU even seems poised to fund more nuclear construction in the East -- through its atomic agency Euratom -- in Ukraine, Russia, and Romania.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.