An ill wind blows some good

Since Chernobyl exploded nine years ago, Bulgaria has cleaned up its nuclear act, says Richard D North

Tomorrow is the ninth anniversary of the explosion and fire that destroyed reactor No 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The radioactive fallout which the accident sprinkled all over Europe drew everyone's attention to the lax nuclear safety standards in the countries of Eastern Europe.

In at least one case, however, this sorry saga looks to have had a happy outcome. It began inauspiciously enough when a study team from the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) that had been sent to look at a massive plant in Bulgaria produced its report in June 1991. The experts did not like what they had seen at Kozloduy: six nuclear power units placed in a purpose-built city beside the cooling waters of the Danube.

In fact, the Russian-designed plant was more like the standard Western pressurised water reactors than the older Chernobyl reactors, which use graphite to slow down nuclear reactions. But its condition was serious.

"We had already been worried and tried to review the situation," says Yanko Yanev, the forthright director of the Bulgarian Committee on the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy for Peaceful Purposes, the country's regulatory body. For years, the difficulty had been that the Bulgarians had dealt almost exclusively with Russians, who themselves had rather narrow contacts with the outside world. The economic chaos unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet empire compounded what was already a dangerous situation.

The IAEA triggered action as well as excited headlines. In the wake of Chernobyl, the Western nuclear industry had already formed a club of operators designed to help troubled plants, especially in the East. Using about £30m of EU funding, the World Association of Nuclear Operators (Wano) sent personnel from the French EDF, the British Nuclear Electric, and assorted Americans, Germans and Russians to help the Bulgarians to sort things out. It was a larger-scale version of the twinning arrangements that many Western and Eastern plants now operate.

"When I first saw the plant - and bear in mind the Bulgarians showed me the worst parts - I was shocked. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw," says Jon Coniam, the Nuclear Electric man who manages Wano's project in Bulgaria.

In what the industry calls "housekeeping" terms, there was unshielded wiring and other signs of under-investment. The control rooms needed clearer, and more, systems (which the Bulgarians paid for themselves, under Western guidance).

Mr Coniam does, however, stress that the Russians had built an "inherently docile" plant, what he calls "quite a forgiving beast". This is mostly to do with the huge quantities of water in the primary circuit: this allows operators quite a long time to react to things going wrong.

Bulgaria has its own university turning out nuclear engineers, and many went on to Russian institutes. Nevertheless, the hornet's nest of management and staff attitudes worried the West. Beyond the isolation, and a certain complacency, there was pressure on managers that flowed from the country's 50 per cent dependence on Kozloduy for its electricity.

The headlines and Western interest almost immediately stiffened the resolve of staff. Three years ago, says Ivan Ivanov, the plant's deputy manager, there was some maintenance work that simply could not be put off. The work was almost bound to take longer than the 72 hours which could be achieved without shutting down the relevant reactor.

Mr Ivanov says: "Big guys came out from Sophia and said we must keep the plant going, or there would be power cuts for the country. This was in winter. But we needed more than the 72 hours and did shut down the plant. Perhaps that's what has changed: safety first."

Everyone in the nuclear industry talks modishly about a safety culture, but proving that such an intangible exists is rather hard. Bernard Payen, the EDF man who runs Wano's team at Kozloduy, smiles and makes a little Gallic shrug when asked if the plant has made the essential attitude changes.

"I prefer to talk less about safety culture and work more," he says. "We work with senior managers here and, yes, I think they have changed. But there are many, many people at Kozloduy ..." His voice trails off. Yet, he insists, "Kozloduy is now - how can I put it? - a `normal' plant."

The IAEA has suggested it is "broadly satisfied" with progress. More money will flow toward Kozloduy: the Group of Seven industrialised nations' summit process has put about £18m in the hands of the European Bank for further work. Everyone stresses that all nuclear safety is a matter of continuing self-challenging by operators: an endless process of asking the "what if" question. No one claims the plant is now "safe", or that it would pass muster in the West. But there are signs that Kozloduy is off the critical list, even if the judgement is a difficult one.

The likely potential problems of the various reactors have been identified. In one of the two oldest plants, the pressure vessel is showing signs of embrittlement. But there is little doubt that if this cannot be resolved, the reactor will be shut down.

Mr Coniam believes the outside world can trust the Wano process because it is driven by self-interest. Now that the West has allied itself with the Bulgarians, any accident would even more loudly condemn the whole nuclear world.

There remains, however, a deficit in regulation. It is true that a club of Western regulators has been helping their Bulgarian colleagues to assess the plant's condition. If these Westerners - or the Bulgarians - were still seriously concerned, it is unlikely they would not speak out.

But Jim Varley, editor of the respected Nuclear Engineering International, would like to see greater efforts to achieve international consistency among regulators, more transparency, a higher profile for internationally agreed standards, with the IAEA given the power and responsibility to provide open assessments of how countries are matching up.

"There are international standards for radiological protection, and there is a UN nuclear convention, but we could do more." It seems unsatisfactory that the IAEA can trigger alarm, but not signal the all-clear at the appropriate moment.

In the meantime, a Bulgarian journalist reminded me forcefully that "we do not eat babies here. We are tired of Western journalists visiting for a few days and then going home with scare stories".

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