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An Old Nuke Angers A Neighbor...But The Fears May Be Overblown (Int'l Edition)

International -- Spotlight on Slovakia

An Old Nuke Angers a Neighbor...But the Fears May Be Overblown (int'l edition)

Taking a tour of Slovakia's Bohunice nuclear reactor is like strolling around the set of the latest Steven Spielberg high-tech extravaganza--or a clunky backdrop to some low-budget '50s sci-fi show. It all depends on which part you're looking at. In its nerve center, a room of sloping control panels, purple-coated engineers peer attentively at floor-to-ceiling rows of aging knobs, levers, and buttons. On the other side of the same room, behind a control desk, banks of sleek computers blink and whir, dispatching their automatic instructions. "You could say we have moved with the times," says Peter Riska, mayor of Jaslovske Bohunice, the nearby village that provides much of the plant's workforce.

But maybe not far enough. Last fall, neighboring Austria, whose border is 40 kilometers from the plant, demanded that the Slovak government close Bohunice within four years, or Vienna will quash talks aimed at granting Slovakia early entry into the European Union. In response, Bratislava could only promise a shutdown by 2008--a gesture that prompted Brussels to pledge $187 million toward decommissioning costs. Unless a new, Western-style reactor under construction in central Slovakia comes fully on-line ahead of schedule, that's the best the Slovaks can do. "Bohunice provides 40% of this nation's power," points out Mayor Riska. "What are we supposed to do when we want to boil a cup of tea, rub two sticks together?"

When Russian engineers constructed Bohunice in 1977, it may have been state-of-the art by Soviet standards, but Western environmental organizations immediately blacklisted it as unsafe. Since the fall of communism in 1989, however, this tiny Central European nation has spent some $24 million it can ill afford on reconstruction and safety upgrades on two of Bohunice's four reactors. Planned upgrades on the other two will be finished by 2006. By the end of this year, the plant will have implemented all 103 upgrades that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommended after a 1998 inspection. Last June, an IAEA report praised Bohunice as "an example of the safety level that can be achieved."

But that's not good enough for many critics, who still rank the facility alongside Chernobyl, the Ukrainian plant where a partial core meltdown in April, 1986, caused hundreds of deaths. For one thing, visiting monitors complain, they can't check everything they are shown. "One of the problems is that the original designers don't know what their building materials were made of," says Hubert Ley, a nuclear physicist at the U.S. Energy Dept.'s Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill. "So it's hard to find someone who can give basic information." Another concern is that Bohunice still isn't equipped with a containment dome over the reactors that would prevent the release of radioactive material into the atmosphere in case of explosion. So the question is: Can Slovakia contain Austria's protest, keep its nuke running until 2008, and still stay on track to join the elite nations of Europe?

Austria is a nuclear-free zone--but then, it can afford to be, since it's rich in hydroelectric power and wealthy enough to import top-grade fossil fuels. Slovak apologists insist that Vienna is bullying a poor neighbor struggling to reverse the effects of 40 years of communist economics.

But in any case, comparisons between Bohunice and death traps like Chernobyl are, strictly speaking, inaccurate. Chernobyl was an RBMK-type reactor, one of the earliest Russian nukes, which have an irreparable design flaw that can cause instability and runaway power surges. Fifteen RBMK reactors are still running in Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania. Bohunice's four reactors are VVERs, or light-water reactors. Water acts as a moderator in VVERs, slowing down atomic particles in fission and decreasing output. Western countries consider VVERs more in line with updated nuclear technology, even without containment domes.

If that's not good enough for Vienna, say nuclear experts, then maybe it should start putting some money into improving Bohunice. "There's no easy solution: There has to be regular investment," concedes Didier Rousseau, a nuclear-safety official at the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development. "If there's no money, then safety goes down."By James Drake, with Ivan Remias, in Jaslovske Bohunice; Edited by Harry MaurerReturn to top

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