When the Soviet Union fell apart last fall, one of the first worries in the West was the fate of its 27,000 nuclear weapons and the experts who designed them. Today there is a much more immediate, and equally grave, concern. The operation of civilian nuclear power stations has been seriously undermined by the breakup of the Soviet Union. Reactors are now rarely inspected for safety. Security, once handled with typical kgb overkill, is virtually nonexistent. Critical spare parts are unavailable, and the oversight of rickety plants has fallen to newly independent republics lacking the necessary funds or skills. Another Chernobyl is waiting to happen.
Five nuclear stations, one located only 70 miles from Helsinki, are most at risk. They contain 15 graphite-moderated reactors similar to the Chernobyl model. Although they underwent safety retrofits after the 1986 disaster, basic design flaws weren't fixed. Should they explode and burn, as Chernobyl did, no containment dome will keep extremely high levels of radioactivity from threatening millions in the former Soviet Union and Europe.
The West is not yet paying sufficient attention to this new nuclear threat. The European Community and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency are only now beginning to study the problem. The Bush Administration, eager to ensure that the Soviet defense capability is choked off, continues to restrict certain high-technology exports--exports that might just make the reactors safer. Now some Western European power engineering companies, such as Germany's Siemens, are urging the establishment of a $7.5 billion fund to finance the decommissioning or retrofitting of Soviet-built reactors throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. That's a tall order, and taxpayers may not be happy to subsidize what could be a business bonanza for some companies. The nuclear industry and its suppliers should donate money and expertise. After all, if another Chernobyl, or worse, happens, nuclear power generation around the world will be set back for years, if not decades.