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Russia: Nuclear Reactors Based In Moscow Cause Concern And Fears

In the Russian capital of Moscow, several dozen nuclear reactors are functioning at various scientific research institutes. Many of the reactors are located in residential sections of the densely populated city, and antinuclear activists and ecologists say they are concerned about the potential risk posed by aging equipment and spent fuel storage. Authorities, however, deny there is any danger.

Prague, 17 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There are nearly 40 nuclear reactors of varying capacities functioning in scientific research institutes in Moscow, a city with 11 million inhabitants. The installations are not powerful and used only for scientific purposes, but Russian activists say they represent a risk. State officials, however insist the situation is completely under control.

While the reactors used by scientific institutes are less powerful than those in nuclear power plants, they still use nuclear fuel, making their presence in a number of Moscow's residential neighborhoods a worry for many.

The problems posed by Moscow's scientific reactors are similar to those of Russia's aging brigade of power plants: potential leaks of radioactive material, the storage of spent nuclear fuel and waste, and poor security standards leaving open the possibility of theft.

Nuclear activists and ecologists say they cannot even agree with state officials on the exact number of reactors currently functioning in the capital city.

An official with Atomnadzor, Russia's federal inspectorate for nuclear and radiation safety, told RFE/RL there are 39 reactors in Moscow. But Vladimir Kuznetsov, the former chief inspector of Atomnadzor who now works as a nuclear activist, says there are closer to 45. The most powerful -- and potentially dangerous -- reactors are at the Kurchatov Institute, located in a northwest district of the city.

Founded in 1943, the Kurchatov Institute played a key role in the development of the first Soviet nuclear bombs, and is home to one of the world's oldest nuclear reactors. First activated in 1946, the reactor is still activated occasionally.

Kuznetsov says, "It is impossible to speak seriously about the safety of such an old reactor." He dismisses Atomnadzor's claim that Kurchatov has a clean safety record, saying a number of incidents have occurred at the institute over the years: "There were three incidents in 1972 involving radioactivity leaks. Four people were killed. There were also incidents in 1989 when radioactive materials also leaked."

Aleksei Yablokov is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and president of the nongovernmental Russian Center for Ecology Policy. Yablokov told RFE/RL that Kurchatov is not the only institute posing a safety risk to Muscovites. He says even the weakest reactors can cause big problems if their safety system fails and a leak occurs: "The danger posed by the reactor does not depend so much on its power. The fact is that an accident can happen and bring various unpleasant things."

The secrecy that surrounded the nuclear industry during the Soviet era has lifted only slightly over the past decade. Yablokov says it is still difficult to know for sure how many incidents occur with the country's nuclear reactors, adding that even now Atomnadzor seems inclined to cover up such reports: "The incidents with leakages were concealed all the time and you cannot trust statistics. I think there have been even more leakages than Kuznetsov was speaking about, but there is no official information."

Yablokov says that it is possible for scientists to reconstruct the truth but money and permission are needed to investigate the facilities. He says the Moscow city government has shown concern about the potential danger posed by the city reactors. In 1992, the city opted to shut down or move all of the city's reactors. But the plan failed to materialize because of lack of funds.

The reactors pose other complicated problems. The nuclear waste and used nuclear fuel stored in the city are among the biggest of the problems. Nuclear activist Kuznetsov describes one such storage site, located near the Kurchatov Institute: "There is a place in Moscow, where used nuclear fuel is stored. It is not far away from the metro station Oktyabrskoye Pole. In terms of radioactivity, the used nuclear fuel that is already stored here equals half of the amount leaked during the Chornobyl accident [in 1986]."

Sergei Morozov, a safety inspector with Atomnadzor, admits that spent nuclear fuel presents a problem in the city and says serious steps are being taken to move the waste out of Moscow. But the task of removing 50 years' worth of accumulated nuclear waste is a complicated one, and Morozov acknowledges it has been slow going: "We are still working on the plan and it will take two years to implement it."

The Russian office of the Greenpeace environmental group gave RFE/RL a letter to the Russian government signed by the director of the Kurchatov Institute, Yevgenii Velikhov. The letter says there are 6 tons of used radioactive fuel currently being stored at the institute. Additional temporary storage of other radioactive waste has been built over two hectares of land belonging to Kurchatov. The two hectares, the letter says, have since been contaminated. Kurchatov officials estimate it will take $100 million to deal with the problem.

Are Russian authorities doing enough to prevent terrorists from accessing nuclear materials based in scientific institutes like Kurchatov? Morozov of Atomnadzor says security measures have been stepped up considerably and that it is almost impossible to steal nuclear materials. Yablokov of the Russian Center for Ecology Policy says that while security standards have improved, many institutes remain vulnerable to theft.

The problem of scientific reactors is not limited to Moscow. There are more than 100 research reactors located throughout the country. The most powerful of them are in Gatchina, near St. Petersburg; in Obninsk and Dubna outside of Moscow; and near the town of Ulyanovsk in central Russia.