Many Chernobyls Just Waiting To Happen

Sergey Slesarenko, chief control-room engineer, didn't like what he saw. Scanning the main computer screen, blinking red on a silvery wall, he could tell that the first reactor of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in eastern Lithuania was getting too hot. Giant pumps weren't flushing the core's 72-foot-long fuel rods with enough cooling water. In short order, some of them could be destroyed. On that night in mid-January, Slesarenko, 32, was staring into the face of another Chernobyl.

Slesarenko had to make a tough choice. Other sensors showed that everything was running normally. An emergency shutdown would cost the plant milliocomputer to clear up any glitches, a process that could take up to two hours. During that time, he risked having to run the reactor half-blinded. The gamble worked, but only for a little while. Before Slesarenko's shift was over, the problem happened again. And again. It wasn't until a week later that operators learned why: A disgruntled employee had inserted a virus into the computer software.

CRUMBLING PLANTS. Six years after the Chernobyl disaster contaminated an area the size of Delaware, the commercial nuclear-power industry in the former Soviet Union is in worse shape than ever. It may be the twin specters of smuggled missile warheads and renegade nuclear weapons designers that send shivers down the spines of officials from Washington to Tokyo. But the more immediate danger comes from outdated, unstable commercial reactors. A BUSINESS WEEK inspection of two plants and interviews with dozens of former Soviet officials shows how the vast nuclear industry has been left virtually unmanaged since the breakup of the country's political system.

Nuclear regulatory agencies are in disarray, and safety inspections have become much less frequent. Because of a severe money crunch, none of the newly independent republics has the money to maintain proper levels of servicing. Equipment makers are being forced to shift to other product lines such as refinery gear and earth movers, prompting a shortage of spare parts. Nationalist tensions in Ukraine and Lithuania are keeping some Russian experts out of facilities that need help. Elsewhere, nuclear operators and other experts are taking better-paying jobs in other industries.

Security is also a shambles. The nuclear stations have few security guards, who now make only cursory checks. That's a far cry from before, when the level of protection came straight out of a cold war spy thriller. Plants were surrounded by layers of electrified fences topped with barbed wire. Three separate teams of the vaunted KGB stood watch, aided by networks of plant informants.

But they all went off the job after last summer's failed coup d'etat. Meanwhile, Western nuclear organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, have been slow to respond.

At the center of the drama are 15 of the world's most suspect reactors, similar to the one that exploded and partially melted down at Chernobyl. Called RBMKs, or High-Power Channel Reactors, the graphite-moderated reactors produce 40% of all nuclear-generated electricity in the former Soviet Union. Safety wasn't the primary goal when they were designed in the 1950s at the height of the cold war, Soviet experts admit. The Kremlin wanted breeder reactors that could provide large amounts of commercial power while producing plutonium for weapons at the same time.

When fate caught up with the designers at Chernobyl, emergency retrofits were ordered. But the measures failed to fix such profound RBMK design flaws as the lack of containment domes to trap radiation after an accident or the reactors' instability when run at low power.Compounding the danger is the location of many of the RBMKs. Some are sited on the outskirts of such major urban areas as St. Petersburg and Kiev. They can be a mere 50 miles, as the wind blows, from Western Europe. Hence, an accident would threaten some of Europe's largest population centers. Otto Lambsdorff, head of Germany's Free Democratic Party, says of the reactors, "They can explode any day."

The enormity of the problem is just beginning to dawn on Western Europeans, who are getting their first unrestricted visits to the reactors. "The fact that all Soviet reactors are unsafe is without doubt," says Heinz-Peter Butz, a spokesman at Germany's Society for Reactor Safety, a Cologne-based watchdog group. "But the RBMK reactors are the worst."

Not surprisingly, Western Europeans are beginning to talk about what can be done. Blue-chip power-engineering companies such as Siemens and Asea Brown Boveri are calling for the closing of RBMK plants and the formation of a $7.5 billion fund from Western governments to refit other reactors throughout Russia and Eastern Europe.

But reactor catastrophes are not the only peril. Chronic leakage of radioactive isotopes from nuclear facilities also is a danger. Take the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, which houses four 1,000-megawatt RBMK reactors in Sosnovy Bor, just 40 miles west of St. Petersburg. When German atomic energy experts visited the plant last year, they were stunned when their Geiger counters went berserk and they saw fire doors that couldn't close.

Russian environmentalists claim that levels of strontium 90, a radioactive isotope, in groundwater near Sosnovy Bor are 350 times above normal and that plutonium, which is ultratoxic, is present in small concentrations. At distances of a mere 1,300 feet from the plant, highly radioactive particles are 400 times the normal level. The leaks are caused by badly designed storage facilities for radioactive sewage, says Yulia Khairutdinova, head of a local Greenpeace chapter and a geneticist at a local ecology lab.

HOT STEAM. The shortage of spare parts is another problem. In the reactor room of the Sosnovy Bor plant, a dozen thin plumes of radioactive steam waft from under the cover of the reactor, situated several yards away. Questioned about them, Anatoly Eperin, the plant's director, answers casually: "That's a usual story these days: The seals we're getting now are pretty poor quality."

If the former Soviet republics were coping with purely technical problems, the challenge might be manageable. But the overlay of nationalist passions has given rise to the prospect of sabotage, as evidenced by the near accident at Ignalina. In that case, Lithuanian police arrested a senior programmer of Russian descent, charging him with infecting critical reactor software with a computer virus.

Although Lithuanian Criminal Police Investigator Kastutis Ratcheishis says he hasn't yet uncovered any evidence that the programmer was motivated by politics, the suspicion is strong. Snetchkus, the nearby town where most plant employees live, is an island of Russian technicians surrounded by resentful and nationalistic Lithuanians. For years, Russians enjoyed a higher standard of living because of their work. Now, they are being forced to obtain Lithuanian citizenship--or leave.

Just a year ago, when the KGB controlled security, it would have been extremely difficult to sabotage in any way a Soviet nuclear plant. Responsibility for security at Ignalina now lies with Lithuania, which is loath to accept it. Says Jurgis Vilemas, director of Lithuania's Institute for Physical & Engineering Problems of Energy Research, newly entrusted with improving nuclear safety: "We have no money to beef up security at the plant. And to improve reactor safety, we need Western help badly."

No doubt. But Western nuclear safety experts trying to deal with old Soviet reactors can't figure out who's in charge. One problem is that all of the reactors, be they in Lithuania, Ukraine, or elsewhere, were designed, manufactured, and regulated in Russia. The institutes that train nuclear technicians and engineers are in Moscow and in Tomsk, Siberia. Non-Russian republics simply don't have the funding or the expertise to handle dangerous plants.

Even in Russia, regulation is up in the air. Reactor safety will be overseen by the new State Committee for the Supervision of Nuclear & Radiation Safety. But it isn't clear how sharp the committee's teeth are. It recognizes, for example, that the RBMK reactors are extremely dangerous and should be shut down, but it is powerless to issue that order. The reason: "We have no substitutes" for power generation, admits Sergei A. Adamchik, head of the committee's nuclear and radiation safety department.

The committee is already being weakened by defections of its regulators at the Russian nuclear stations because of low salaries. Some of the nuclear experts are snapping up jobs in newly formed private power companies. "We've already lost several young scientists to cooperatives, where they earn three or four times as much. How can we keep them?" asks Alexander Rimsky-Korsakov, grandson of the famous composer and deputy director of the Radium Institute in St. Petersburg, which was responsible for developing the nuclear fuel cycle for reactors. Similar complaints come from reactor manufacturers, such as the Izhorsky Zavod, a huge industrial conglomerate on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

NO QUICK FIX. That leaves the West as the only place where help can be found. Western experts argue that their governments and companies must get involved. "They should make an international effort through the European Community, or the International Atomic Energy Agency, because any kind of assistance is in our self-interest," says Murray Feshbach, a Soviet expert at Georgetown University.

But help won't be quick in coming, especially for the RBMKs. Western companies specializing in making equipment for nuclear power plants insist that fixing RBMKs is too expensive. Even if they could be fixed, the former Soviet republics can't afford to pay. "Why should we give away our equipment?" says Manfred Simon, a member of Asea Brown Boveri's managing board. Adolf Huttl, chairman of Siemens' energy division, KWU, is even more adamant: "Because of their design flaws, it is economically not feasible to backfit RBMK reactors. Besides, the money provided by the EC is not enough by far." The European Community is proposing a $100 million study program.

Nor will help be coming soon from the IAEA, which is supposed to promote the safe operation of nuclear plants worldwide. The agency is only now launching a study of RBMK reactors, which don't exist on a commercial scale anywhere outside the former Soviet Union. Says Morris Rosen, an IAEA expert: "It's a very delicate situation: We're trying to get the cooperation of new government agencies and the industry, and that's not easy."

All remedies face political or technical impediments. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for example, has held more than 40 joint meetings with Soviet nuclear officials since 1988. But American restrictions on exporting high technology still keep sophisticated Western computer systems out of the hands of nuclear plant officials. Mothballing a nuclear reactor of the Chernobyl type is expensive and takes a long time. That's why two reactors at Chernobyl won't be shut down until 1993. Even if the former Soviet republics could be persuaded to shut the reactors down quickly, sending electricity from the West alongthe existing East European grid is impossible because the voltages af the Western and East European grids are not compatible.

It all shapes up as one of the most difficult challenges the West must face as it copes with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Western nuclear industry leaders and politicians may be unwilling to expose themselves to the necessary financial risk to address the reactor problems. But at the same time, they are taking still another risk.

Should they do nothing, and a radiation catastrophe worse than Chernobyl occur, the nuclear-power industry worldwide will be in even greater turmoil. That means they are playing Russian roulette with nuclear power in more ways than one.