Ukraine drops its price to shut Chernobyl

Old Soviet reactors still terrify the West, despite likely closure of the worst one of all, reports Phil Reeves
Moscow - After weeks of wrangling over money, the Ukraine and the West were inching towards an agreement last night over the terms by which the Chernobyl plant, scene of the worst nuclear accident in history, will be shut down by the end of the decade.

Following talks with officials from the Group of Seven industrialised countries, the Ukrainians indicated they had relaxed a demand for $4bn (pounds 2.53bn) as a condition for closing Chernobyl's two remaining reactors, although they made clear that they still expected a large sum in Western aid.

If the talks finally produce a settlement, there will be widespread relief among governments across Europe, although it will do nothing to ease the anxiety about the hazards posed by the entire nuclear sector in Russia and its former satellites - concerns ranging from theft of components for weapons to the risk of a radiation leak from ill-supervised, under- funded and decrepit installations.

This week the environmental group Greenpeace launched a scathing attack on Russia's lack of safety standards, distributing government documents which showed that last year Gosatomnadzor, the nation's nuclear safety inspectorate, found 38,599 safety violations at nuclear sites, but took legal action in only 13 cases. The inspectorate had also conducted safety tests on more than 17,500 nuclear-related workers; almost 1,300 failed.

These statistics add weight to the alarming findings of the "Most Dangerous Reactors" project, a group of experts convened by the US Department of Energy to alert policy-makers about the dangers of foreign nuclear power plants. In a recent report, following a review of nine Soviet-designed reactors, they described a catalogue of problems including deficiencies in design, weak and incompetent national regulatory bodies, and under- funding.

The American researchers provisionally named the four most dangerous plants as Chernobyl, Kozloduy in Bulgaria, Kola in north-western Russia and Ignalina in Lithuania. Using a complex formula to assess the likelihood of an accident, all four plants received a "D" grade on a scale from A (representing low risk) to F (high risk). Extracts from their conclusions make sobering reading.

Of the Lithuanian plant, the report said: "Conditions that are deemed so important in the West for preventing accidents - like a conservative 'forgiving' plant design, adequate funds and strong regulatory oversight - are simply absent at Ignalina."

The nuclear power station, which provides 80 per cent of the ex-Soviet republic's electricity, became the responsibility of Lithuania's nuclear safety inspectorate, Vatesi, when independence was declared in 1991. "Vatesi is years away from being a recognised authority with a strong scientific base," the report said.

Its authors were scathing about the plant's general safety systems and shoddy construction, but expressed even greater concern over the risk of the reactor cavity being over-pressurised. This "could result in an uncooled core being directly exposed to the atmosphere with no barriers to prevent the release of radioisotopes, as was so aptly shown at Chernobyl. "A major radiation release could affect the health of tens of thousands of people in the region, with secondary fall-out occurring in any number of nearby countries, like Poland, Latvia, Russia or Sweden," the report said.

Like Chernobyl, the plant uses boiling-water, pressure-tube RBMK reactors - the kind "generally considered the least safe by Western safety experts". Some 200,000 people live within a 30-mile radius of Ignalina.

Operating the Kozloduy power plant, on the Romanian border in northern Bulgaria, is a "truly high stakes gamble". The report cites serious design faults, a dangerously undersized emergency core-cooling system, inadequate containment and "a legacy of poor safety culture". When international inspectors ordered its first generation water-cooled reactors to be shut down four years ago, the Bulgarians obeyed. But they restarted them a year later, "without correcting a number of design deficiencies". One of its reactors is closed for safety checks, but another was restarted recently by the government, which says it cannot do without the power as the winter approaches. Some 150,000 people live within a 30-mile radius of the plant.

The Kola plant in north-western Russia is the primary cause of a threefold increase in the number of incidents at old Soviet-style VVER-440 reactors in recent years, said the report. About once a year, Kola has a near-accident. "Poor employee morale is increasing chances of human error and sabotage."