Ex-Soviet nations fall back on nuclear energy

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ATOMIC energy authorities in the former Soviet Union are seeking to expand their nuclear power programmes despite international warnings that safety standards are so low that a Chernobyl-style accident cannot be ruled out. In Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, pro-nuclear lobbies are on the rise and the public environmental movements of the late 1980s are now a shadow of their former selves.

Nuclear power is returning to favour largely because most post-Soviet states are suffering serious energy shortages. Scientists such as Yevgeny Velikhov, the Russian who played a prominent part in dealing with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, argue that alternatives to nuclear power are too expensive and conservation measures are inadequate to meet increasing demands for electricity.

Russia, which is grappling with falling output of gas, oil and coal, announced in December 1992 that it intended to raise capacity at its nuclear plants from 22,000 megawatts to 37,000 megawatts by 2010. Its decision to open a new modified RBMK unit at the Kursk station, 280 miles south of Moscow, has alarmed foreign experts who regard that model as unsafe.

The Chernobyl disaster occurred in an RBMK unit, but Russian scientists say they have updated the design to eliminate the risk of another accident. In particular, they have reduced its shutdown time, increased its uranium enrichment to 5 per cent from 2 per cent, and tried to prevent the possibility of unsupervised experiments such as those which helped cause the Chernobyl explosion and fire.

Ukraine, which is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy supplies, lifted a moratorium on building and commissioning new reactors last October. It also decided that the two units still in use at Chernobyl could continue to operate until the end of their natural lifespans. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission believe that the Chernobyl reactors are unsafe and must be closed down.

At their summit in Naples this month, G7 countries offered Ukraine dollars 200m ( pounds 130m) to shut Chernobyl. But the chairman of Ukraine's State Committee for the Use of Nuclear Power, Mykhaylo Umanets, said this was only a fraction of the amount needed to compensate Ukraine and threatened to resign rather than accept the money.

Chernobyl is not the only plant where there have been serious accidents in recent years. In May 1993, one worker was killed and another injured during repair work at the Zaporozhye station in Ukraine. One month earlier, a container with radioactive deposits exploded at the secret Tomsk-7 plant in Russia, contaminating an area of 80 square miles. Chernobyl itself experienced a second accident in October 1991, when a fire broke out in the turbine room of its second reactor. In the last few years, safety violations have caused hundreds of stoppages at nuclear plants in the post-Soviet states.

Despite these problems, the post-Soviet states are adamant that nuclear power is the only answer to their energy crises. They note that nuclear power accounted for only 12.3 per cent of their energy production, much less than in many Western countries.