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Ukraine muffles nuclear blast

AN EXPLOSION at a nuclear power station in the Ukraine has renewed the debate about the safety of atomic energy in the former Soviet Union. One man was killed and another seriously injured in the accident at Zaporizha, Europe's largest nuclear power plant.

An official at the regional council in the city of Zaporizha, which is only 30 miles from the station, said sparks from a welder's torch on Friday ignited some hydrogen leaking from a pipe in one of the plant's six reactors, which had been shut down for repairs. 'One welder was burnt to death immediately,' she said.

The official quoted the plant's director, Valery Bronnikov, as saying the accident was 'not linked to the atomic process. There is no threat to people's lives or the environment around the station at the moment.'

The explosion comes only a few weeks after another nuclear accident at the special military plant near Tomsk, which contaminated a tract of valuable Siberian forest. An official at the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry, which still maintains links with the industry in other republics of the former Soviet Union, said 'nothing serious' had happened at Zaporizha. 'Carelessness' had caused the blast but the resulting fire was quickly extinguished and the plant was working normally.

Nuclear accidents in the former Soviet Union - especially in the Ukraine - stir memories of the 1986 tragedy at Chernobyl when an explosion killed 33 people on the spot and emitted radiation that has been blamed for 8,000 subsequent deaths.

Clearly, the Zaporizha accident was not on that scale. And the Zaporizha plant has pressurised water reactors that are considered safer than the type at Chernobyl, which is due to close. But in one way the two disasters are similar - after each, information was sparse. Yesterday the Russian media carried only the briefest reports - activists at Moscow Greenpeace had not even heard about the fire.

Last week, Russian Greenpeace adopted the more direct tactics of the West when two activists chained themselves to the doors of the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry, preventing workers from reaching their offices. The two ecologists, who were protesting about a Russian government plan to build a new network of nuclear power stations, were arrested and fined.