Preventing Chernobyl Ii

It's a hot spring afternoon in the Bulgarian town of Kozloduy, an odd mix of peasant huts and concrete high rises scattered alongside the Donau River. On a flat hilltop just outside of town, a tall, barbed-wire fence rings a Soviet-designed nuclear power plant. Inside a grubby reactor control room, chief reactor engineer Vasil Manolov, 40, is angrily kicking a yellowed box full of half-exposed electronic parts. "Look at this garbage," he says as he pokes at a twisted web of wires that process data from a reactor just 100 feet away. "It's a miracle this stuff still works."

Miracle, indeed. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which has killed as many as 8,000 people and contaminated one-tenth of Ukraine, introduced the West to the lethal safety flaws of nuclear plants behind the Iron Curtain. Now, as the ex-Soviet empire's economic and political dislocations mount, chances are growing that a harrowing sequel to Chernobyl may take place at one of the 56 operating reactors that pockmark the former Soviet bloc (map, page 45). There already have been four major incidents at Soviet-designed reactors since Chernobyl. The most recent was in late March, when sirens blared an alert at the Sosnovy Bor plant near St. Petersburg, an area of 5 million people.

HOSTILE TAKEOVER. The West, finally, seems to be waking up to this civilian equivalent of a nuclear-weapons threat--or worse. Unlike nuclear warheads, where the danger could be calculated, reactors present a nightmare of uncertain choices. Some, like the Chernobyl-style reactors at Sosnovy Bor, are highly unstable, while others are prone to leaks and fires. All are governed by a hodgepodge of standards designed to ensure they keep producing energy, not address health or environmental safety.

In meetings held in European capitals in past weeks, officials from Europe, the U.S., and Japan have hammered out a three-stage, $10 billion plan to eventually shut down the worst reactors. Others will be upgraded, and major parts of the East's energy sector restructured.

Western leaders expect to unveil the plan as the centerpiece of the July summit of the seven largest industrialized nations in Munich. If carried through, it could mark the biggest technology transfer contemplated since Henry Ford built tractors for Joseph Stalin's Russia 60 years ago. Because more funds would almost certainly be required later, it could eventually rival the Marshall Plan that turned around Western Europe following World War II.

The plan being devised by the Group of Seven nations could spark a gold rush among hungry Western nuclear power engineering companies. From Germany to France to the U.S., beleaguered energy-engineering companies such as Siemens' KWU unit, Framatome, and Westinghouse Electric have good reason to help ward off a nuclear disaster that could snuff out flickering Western public tolerance for nuclear power. At the same time, they could boost their own bottom lines with years of contracts.

The stakes go way beyond that, however. Without a secure energy sector, the former Communist world's ability to adopt free-market economics and democratic reforms will be compromised. "Unless you get the energy sector in good working order, you can forget democracy and the rest," says Michael Sturmer, director of the Research Institute for International Affairs in Ebenhausen, Germany.

DRIVING BLIND. It won't be easy. The very people the West's proposals are aimed at helping already are arguing over how far and how fast they should go. To Russia's proud nuclear-energy industry, it all spells nothing less than a hostile takeover of hundreds of companies that now employ some 800,000 workers and have deep ties to the nation's military-industrial complex. Russian experts did not attend the G-7 meetings, so now they are putting together a response that Russian President Boris Yeltsin will present to Western leaders in Munich. With the future of the Russian nuclear power industry at risk, the path to fundamental changes in East-West nuclear-energy policy could be just as difficult as arms-control talks.

Even as Western officials developed their plans, for example, Moscow's Ministry of Atomic Energy was pushing a program to restart construction of a half-dozen reactors in Russia, including a Chernobyl-type model in Kursk. No shutdown of Russian reactors would be contemplated "unless we have assured a supply of replacement power," says Victor Sidorenko, deputy minister at the atomic energy agency.

Others in the East, however, are in a hurry. Managers at Bulgaria's Kozloduy plant, for example, are anxious to stabilize their four first-generation VVER models, which would eventually be shut down under the Western plan. They insist aid is urgently needed. "By Western standards, we're driving this reactor blindly," says reactor chief Manolov. "We have no computers telling us what's going on inside it or controlling the process." Nor are there any operating manuals at two newer reactors: Russian technicians, angry at the Bulgarians' inability to pay their bills, simply walked off with the manuals last year.

As it's shaping up now, phase one of the West's plan aims to start patching up the 14 most problem-ridden RBMK reactors in Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania and the 10 old, pressurized-water VVER reactors in Russia, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia. Some of the most pressing needs: fireproofing cables and installing leak-detection systems. Such fixing would take about two years and would be financed from a $700 million grant set up by the G-7 nations at the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD). But the improvements would be made only if Eastern governments agree to phase out the reactors over the next few years.

As part of a second phase, the West will try improving nuclear-safety culture gaps. Out goes smoking in reactor-control rooms. Intensive training, new procedures, and better management will be in. The West will train, advise, and help make safety assessments working with regulators in Russia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Funding for the project will include $24 million a year from the European Community.

CRASH TRAINING. At the same time, plant engineers, reactor operators, and safety personnel would get crash training at nuclear plants in the West or at the International Science & Technology Center in Moscow. Key organizations such as the World Bank and the International Energy Agency in Paris would meanwhile decide which reactors under construction should be finished. By the end of next year, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna has to negotiate a new global nuclear convention that will set mandatory safety rules for reactors all over the world--beginning with the Soviet-made ones as they are upgraded.

Upgrading these 32 nuclear reactors in Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary would certainly be the most lucrative phase for Western companies, which would compete for at least $2 billion to $3 billion in orders over five years. That's not counting such projects as the construction, to the tune of at least $2 billion, of an enormous new sarcophagus to re-bury the destroyed Chernobyl reactor or the decommissioning of three other reactors there. Altogether, this phase could cost up to $9 billion.

To help pay for upgrading operating plants, the East would have to borrow heavily. It could get cheaper loans from the World Bank and EBRD, as well as bank credits guaranteed by the international agencies, but ultimately it would have to come up with about $500 million. Some of that could come from cash flow generated by their utilities and from their own governments.

The West's plan also doesn't cover the longer-term task of mothballing and dismantling the 24 worst reactors, as called for by phase one. This might prompt East Europeans and ex-Soviets one day to balk and try to keep those reactors running.

But if the plan is accepted by West and East alike, the race for orders would heat up by next year between the main Western players--Siemens, Framatome, Westinghouse, as well as Italy's Ansaldo, Sweden's ABB Asea Brown Boveri, and the U.S.'s Bechtel. Adolf Huttl, chief of Siemens' energy engineering KWU unit, expects his company will get about $60 million a year in contracts if the plan goes through, but more from helping build replacement power plants.

`UNACCEPTABLE.' Not everyone is coming. Intervention into the East's energy industry may hang a heavy--and not universally desired--liability on Western governments and companies. They would become responsible for West-supplied nuclear equipment that would be relied on to generate a large share of the region's power. Not surprisingly, some major Western companies prefer to stay away. "We can't risk our name in Russia," says Steve Barber, an executive of General Electric Co.'s Nuclear Energy Division. "How can we make sure they will operate our equipment properly?"

There are other imponderables. Russia's atomic energy ministry, which has largely inherited the old Soviet mindset, is opposed to the idea of a speedy shutdown of Chernobyl-type reactors. "The plans to close down reactors without introducing new capacities are unacceptable," says Sergei Yermakov, the ministry's chief spokesman.

With oil production collapsing and brownouts already routine in some areas, Russia needs all the nuclear power it can get. Chernobyl-type reactors generate about one-half of it. Together with old, first-generation VVER reactors, they supply 63% of power to Russia's heavily industrialized regions. Little wonder, Sidorenko insists his ministry will make sure all nuclear power stations "keep working until their design life runs out." This means well into the next century.

Yeltsin is likely to accept the G-7 plan in Munich, but before it can be fully implemented, the West would almost certainly have to satisfy at least some of the concerns expressed by the old military-industrial complex. Aside from nitty-gritty details of which reactors are improved and which ones shut down, the Russians almost certainly will insist that the West cannot dictate all the conditions. With so many careers on the line, the Russian apparatchiks are determined not to completely lose control.

The urgent need is to break through all the logjams before former Soviet allies, acting in a vacuum, deepen their dependence on unsafe energy or take other desperate, go-it-alone steps. Ukraine, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia, for example, all find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Despite their independence, Moscow is still firmly holding them in its economic orbit as its engineers continue to keep key technical drawings and reactor knowhow to themselves. While these countries would be happy to get rid of unsafe reactors, they depend far too much on the energy they generate.

Lithuania draws over 70% of its electricity from the world's largest RBMK reactors at the Ignalina Nuclear Power Station, and it gets most of its export revenues from selling power to Belarus and Latvia. The republic's safety regulator, Gennady Lipunov, is cynical about the situation. "A good RBMK is a dead RBMK," he told a recent meeting in Paris. "But what can we replace it with?"

Ukraine now gets up to 40% of its power from nuke plants and exports a small amount to Bulgaria. But now that the Ukraine government has decided to mothball all reactors at Chernobyl, it will be hard-pressed both for energy and hard currency. Similarly, with Russia's export prices for gas and oil soaring, nuclear energy looks more attractive to Bulgaria, which depends on its five reactors to produce about 40% of its energy. Almost half of Hungary's electricity is nuclear-generated.

BASIC FLAWS. Czechoslovakia is planning to get fully one-half of its energy from nuclear plants by the year 2000. Its eight operating reactors and the six that are under construction are all of the Soviet design. Two of them, in Bohunice, not far from the Hungarian border, are of the first-generation VVER model that the West wants to shut down. Although Siemens' KWU division is helping with other Czech plants, Western companies so far have shied away from putting their own money into upgrading the Bohunice plants, which are dangerously unsafe.

That's the case for most of the reactors slated for shutdown. Parts and upgraded training procedures will not be enough to make up for basic design flaws. The older VVERs, for example, lack containment domes and adequate control instruments. The control rooms themselves are seriously flawed: The control room at one of Kozloduy's older reactors has large windows that are half open, looking out to overgrown green lawns. That is a flagrant breach of the safety rules that are accepted in the West. There, control rooms are sealed off from the rest of the plant and independently air-conditioned. A radioactive leak anywhere in the Kozloduy plant would immediately affect reactor operators, because the window's slightly warped wooden frame provides poor protection. "Such a setup is extraordinary," says Friedrich Niehaus, who is head of the safety assessment section at the IAEA.

Niehaus was among the agency's Western experts who rated the first-generation Soviet-designed VVERs as a high safety risk and called on the Bulgarian government to shut down the four older Kozloduy reactors. Fixing such faults, says a report by Siemens, would be a $25 million job for the Kozloduy management--an impossible sum for a plant where a top-earning engineer takes home about $500 a month. Lax safety doesn't seem to bother Manolov: He walks up to the window and opens it a crack more. "Let's get some fresh air," he says with a smile.

TOP PRIORITY. The essential problem is translating the West's rescue vision into reality before governments in the East backslide. Some, like Bulgaria, have already decided to restart the first-generation Kozloduy reactors that they earlier agreed to shut down. To be sure, such plans are partly an attempt to bargain for more and faster aid. But they're also born of uncertainty and frustration with the West's promises. Sighs Jordan Jordanov, safety manager at the Kozloduy plant: "I will frame and hang up on my office wall the first dollar that comes our way."

Such skepticism may have been justified in the past. But just as the former Soviet empire is undergoing a transformation, so too are Western institutions bowing to pressures to help the Eastern nations. The West already includes the former Communists in the International Monetary Fund and other key institutions. In effect, Europe, the U.S., and Japan are developing a new East-West program for rebuilding the former Communist world.

On this ambitious agenda, the issue of fixing the East's shaky nuclear industry is a clear priority. For the West, the fuzziness of ruble-stabilization funds and Russian defense conversion still seem politically risky and even a waste of money. But the heavy scare factor along with the West's clear self-interest in preventing another nuclear disaster should translate to much broader support for the reactor challenge. Says one senior State Dept. official: "Given all the horrors that lie ahead in terms of the transformation of these states, this is a good way to get engaged. Who could object to preventing more Chernobyls?" That's why dollars may be pinned up in reactor control rooms sooner than many Easterners dream.

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