Agency urges closure of risky reactors

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The Independent Online

Central Europe Correspondent

A decade after the Chernobyl disaster, the risk of another nuclear power plant catastrophe continues to cast an ominous shadow over Europe and most of the former Soviet Union.

Most anxiety is centred on the 15 reactors of the Chernobyl type - known by the Russian acronym RBMK - which are still in operation in Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania.

Despite improvements to the plants since the accident, nuclear power experts believe they still represent an acute danger. According to specialists at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), they should all be shut down or, failing that, significantly further upgraded.

A report issued by the United States energy ministry earlier this month declared that many of the reactors still in service in eastern Europe and former Soviet republics had faulty emergency cooling systems which could lead to massive radioactive leakages at any time.

The ministry report singled out the first and third reactors at Chernobyl itself as the worst of the lot, saying that the state of the site was now worse than it had been prior to the accident on 26 April 1986.

In addition to the RBMK light water gas-cooled reactors, experts remain extremely worried by another Soviet model, the WWER pressurised water reactor, which also remains in widespread use.

The IAEA has singled out the Bohunice and Kozloduy plants in Slovakia and Bulgaria respectively as being particularly dangerous.

The subject of improving nuclear power plant safety features heavily at a four-day conference in Vienna this week, attended by politicians and scientists from West and East. Its recommendations, in turn, will be forwarded to leaders of the world's seven richest nations meeting in Moscow later this month for a summit on nuclear issues.

Although most agree the best solution would be to close the most dangerous reactors, the countries operating them say they cannot shut them down because they depend on them for their power supplies.

The cost of upgrading the RBMK plants alone to Western safety standards is estimated at around $100m (pounds 66m)-$150m per unit - money which cannot be afforded by countries from the East and which has not been forthcoming from the West.

The two operational reactors at Chernobyl itself, however, will almost certainly close by the year 2000, in return for which Ukraine is set to receive more than $3bn compensation from the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations.