Six years after Chernobyl, Europe still lives in fear of unsafe Soviet reactors
Nuclear time bombs
Six years after Chernobyl, Europe still lives in fear of unsafe Soviet reactors
A cryptic quote by Vladimir Lenin adorns the main entrance of the Leningradskaya power station, a massive 16-year-old nuclear plant that generates much of the electricity used by St. Petersburg, 80 km to the west. “The power of the electron is as unlimited as the power of the atom,” the slogan reads. Lenin, who died in 1924, might have been reflecting on the potential use of the forces lurking within the elements. But that promise has turned to ashes along with the Communist state that he founded. Instead, the Leningradskaya station has come to symbolize the danger that Soviet nuclear energy policies now pose to people on both sides of the old union’s borders. The station is equipped with four huge graphite-tube reactors known as RBMKs—the same flawed model that exploded on April 26, 1986, at Chernobyl, Ukraine.
Indeed, on March 24, a mechanical failure in one of the Leningradskaya units sent a small cloud of radioactive gas drifting towards neighboring Finland. Once again, a pointed reminder of a Soviet nuclear threat caught the world’s attention. And late last month, officials from Canada and six other leading industrial countries acknowledged that they are preparing a massive aid program to improve the safety of Soviet nuclear reactors scattered across the old
union and Eastern Europe. Next month, leaders of the Group of Seven countries are scheduled to meet in Munich to discuss, and perhaps approve, a nuclear aid package costing as much as $23 billion. Its objective: to prevent another Chernobyl-like disaster.
That explosion spewed almost 50 tons of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, an amount 10 times the fallout released by the U.S. atomic bomb blast over Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. But Soviet officials have always maintained that only 31 deaths could be directly attributed to the Chernobyl accident—a total that Ukrainian cabinet ministers dismiss as absurdly low. They note that mortality rates among the 600,000 workers, many of them conscripts, who helped clean up the area around the stricken reactor are as much as five times higher than normal. According to Ukrainian authorities, as many as 8,000 of those so-
called liquidators have since died.
Shortly before Canadian Energy Minister Jake Epp visited Chernobyl last week, a joint U.S.-Russian medical study contradicted another official Soviet line on the world’s worst nuclear accident—that only about 100 inhabitants of the surrounding area had received large doses of radiation. Vladimir Lupandin, a Russian physician who interviewed former residents and health-care workers in heavily contaminated regions, has concluded that up to 20,000 people received massive and potentially fatal doses of radiation. Said Lupandin: “The number of people exposed may be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times greater than previously thought.”
Clearly, the Chernobyl accident and the danger posed by similar reactors form part of the collapsed union’s most poisonous legacy. For four decades, Soviet nuclear scientists and technicians helped develop the country’s military and industrial strength by building atomic weapons and nuclear-fuelled ships and spacecraft, as well as power plants. But as members of the old union’s small but influential environmental movement stress, those national programs frequently proceeded with little regard for operational safety—or for the health and environmental effects of indiscriminate nuclear waste disposal.
Some Soviet ecologists have also criticized the West for its overriding obsession with only one aspect of the Kremlin’s nuclear threat: its vast arsenal of atomic weapons. Said Alexei Yablokov, a widely known environmentalist who now advises Russian President Boris Yeltsin: “It is not possible to use missiles to deliver Soviet power stations to other countries. But in reality, they are just as dangerous as our nuclear weapons.”
Eastern Europe is acutely aware of that danger because Moscow imposed its flawed nuclear technology on its satellite states. As a result, Austria has expressed its concern about the continued operation of two 440-megawatt reactors near the Czechoslovakian city of Bratislava. According to the Austrians, those 20-year-old units, known as WER-440 models, are among the most dangerous of the Soviet nuclear exports because they lack any means of containing radioactive emissions. Germany, meanwhile, promptly closed down five similar water-cooled reactors in the formerly Communist east after reunification two years ago. German officials then shipped sections of the dismantled reactors to Bulgaria. They did so in a stopgap effort to patch up another two WER units at a shockingly run-down power station there that German experts have described as a bomb waiting to go off.
Certainly, until fallout from Chernobyl drifted across international borders, it was largely Soviet citizens who suffered the consequences of the shortcuts, sloppy procedures and design defects that plagued their country’s
nuclear programs as it sought to keep pace with its Western rivals. Initially, the Kremlin, then ruled by reformminded Mikhail Gorbachev, even tried to conceal the Chernobyl disaster in a brief reflexive reversion to Moscow’s habit of cloaking disasters in secrecy. And Soviet authorities waited until 1990 before they grudgingly acknowledged that a much-rumored nuclear accident had in fact occurred in the Urals in 1957. That explosion of a nuclearwaste storage tank dumped 70 tons of radioactive material over an area of about 400 square miles, prompting the evacuation of 10,000 residents from the worst-hit areas.
Other horrifying tales of nuclear mismanagement have emerged from once secret files during the past two years. Last month alone, Russian officials confirmed that Soviet naval vessels and icebreakers had routinely dumped radioactive waste in environmentally sensitive arctic waters for 30 years. According to Andrei Zolotov, a radiation specialist in Murmansk, the home port for Soviet nuclear-powered icebreakers, that practice did not end until 1991. I Indeed, Zolotov, a former Supreme I Soviet deputy, has charged that the z shallow waters near a Soviet nuclear test site in the Novaya Zemlya (“new land”) islands contain the remains of at least 12 shipbome nuclear reactors and contaminated parts of several submarines. Zolotov alleges that three of the discarded reactors came from the V. I. Lenin, the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker. Scientists from Russia, Norway and four other countries plan to test those claims in July when they launch a month-long expedition to locate numerous dumping sites that threaten the rich fishing grounds of the Barents and Kara seas.
Even Moscow has suffered from a widespread disregard for safety precautions. There are no major nuclear power plants near the city, but local officials acknowledge that they have incomplete records of old dump sites where local research institutes deposited radioactive waste. And there are recurrent reports of nuclear waste turning up in building materials: in 1990, city inspectors found radioactive metal in asphalt laid down in central Moscow’s Gorky Park—one of the city’s most popular recreation spots. In similar fashion, Bread Factory No. 17 has become a controversial addition to a northwest district of the city. The reason: although radiation inspectors found traces of nuclear waste on the construction site, state bakery officials pressed ahead with the building after removing the contaminated material, and the factory began production earlier this year.
Despite the shabby record of the old regime, the breakup of the Soviet empire has only heightened the risk of a nuclear mishap. In Moscow, officials of the former Soviet, now Russian, ministry of atomic energy candidly acknowledge a dramatic weakening of central control over the 45 reactors—generating 12.7 per cent of the old union’s electrical power—that still operate within the former U.S.S.R. For one thing, the Chernobyl power plant,
with three remaining RBMK reactors, is now under the jurisdiction of independent Ukraine. Another two Chernobyl-type reactors operate in independent Lithuania. But the ministry and the increasingly autonomous plants share a common problem: struggling to operate a complex technological system in the midst of a disintegrating economy. Said ministry spokesman Yevgeny Ignatenko, a key organizer of the Chernobyl cleanup: “We find it difficult to buy spare parts and we lack fuel. Prices are soaring and some plant workers get only part of their salaries because there is a physical shortage of rubles.”
Friction between former Soviet republics has also heightened nuclear risks. In Armenia, public protests over two reactors that were built in an earthquake zone near the republic’s capital of Yerevan eventually forced their closure in 1989. But the small southern republic has come close to
openly declared war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave that lies wholly within Azerbaijan. In response, Azerbaijan has imposed a crippling fuel blockade and pinched off supplies of natural gas and oil bound for Armenia. Now, in an increasingly desperate search for ways out of a two-yearold energy crisis, the Armenian government is seriously considering restarting the mothballed reactors.
John Large, a British consultant who has closely examined RBMK reactors, has reached the same conclusion as many of his colleagues: they should be closed down. Said Large, who visited Moscow recently to provide members of the local Greenpeace branch with technical data: “You cannot make RBMKs safer by simply bolting on Western technology, as the basic design is inherently unstable.” For one thing, Large disparages a high-pressure system that pumps water heated to about 300° C through vertical tubes. An RBMK reactor has a network of 1,690 such channels, each enclosing a uranium fuel rod. And he shudders at the prospect of pipes bursting in reactors that lack strengthened concrete domes to contain radioactive emissions. Said Large: “The hot water would quickly turn to steam and, in even a small rupture, boom, there goes the reactor lid.”
A small-scale version of that nuclear nightmare occurred near St. Petersburg in March, when a regulatory valve failed and contaminated steam escaped into the atmosphere. While radioactive levels rose to 60 micro-roentgens per hour in the reactor hall—three times higher than the normal reading—the event registered as a Level 2 incident on the
ascending seven-point scale developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Chernobyl eruption, by contrast, topped the agency’s chart. In any event, Leningradskaya technicians responded quickly and the safety systems performed as designed.
Even so, the inadvertent release of a small radioactive cloud that drifted over the neighboring Gulf of Finland was jarring proof of the continuing risk posed by Soviet-model reactors. Since January, 1991, in fact, RBMK reactors have been involved in five of the six low-level mishaps that have occurred in nuclear power plants built by the former Soviet Union. There were no outward signs of panic in St. Petersburg when officials at the Leningradskaya station swiftly released information about the alarming incident to the general public. But even in Moscow, 700 km to the southeast, there was a palpable sense of tension
when radio broadcasts initially reported that winds were blowing the radioactive gases towards the capital city.
In an unsettling aftermath to that episode, Soviet nuclear industry officials acknowledged that a minimum of 10,000 new valves are needed to prevent similar problems from occurring in other RBMK reactors. But in yet another illustration of the problems afflicting the old union’s chaotic economy, only one factory near Moscow produces the valves. As a result, even the most optimistic plant operators predict that it will be at least six months before adequate new supplies are available.
During a one-week visit to Russia and Ukraine, Canada’s Epp toured the Leningradskaya and Chernobyl power stations and even hefted the fist-sized emergency valves that are in short supply. And after prolonged exposure to technical data about Soviet nuclear problems, Epp said that a single image of Chernobyl remained burned on his memory: the stilled ferris wheel in Pripyat, the Chernobyl plant’s now-abandoned dormitory community. Certainly, the Canadian nuclear industry might easily reap commercial benefits from the massive overhaul that Soviettype reactors require. But last week, Epp preferred to focus on the human loss exemplified by a rusting fairground ride. Canada was ready to provide aid and expertise, he told Maclean ’s, because “the world cannot afford a second Chernobyl.” Preventing such a recurrence, in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere, has clearly become a worldwide responsibility.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.