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Lack of Funds Threatens Nuclear Power Safety and Electricity Supply

March 12, 1994

MOSCOW (AP) _ In Russia’s frozen far north, workers at the Bilibino nuclear power plant haven’t been paid for three months and the reactor’s director desperately needs funds for fuel and repairs.

Several thousand miles away in densely populated central Russia, the Kursk nuclear power plant has slashed output for lack of fuel and a long-planned reconstruction of an older reactor has been delayed.

Across the country, Russia’s nuclear power plants face a serious shortfall in revenue. The result, say nuclear regulatory officials and environmentalists, is that safety is in jeopardy, especially at Chernobyl-type reactors.

Nuclear power plants account for only 12 percent of Russia’s electricity, and generate no hard currency like oil or natural gas. So far far the government hasn’t listened to the industry’s pleas for extra funds.

″The government has forgotten what a nuclear accident is and they really don’t understand the impact of a market economy,″ said Sergei Adamchik, who oversees nuclear power plant safety at the Atomic Industry Inspectorate.

Last year the Atomic Industry Inspectorate recorded about 20,000 violations of safety rules and claims many of those incidents are due to the funding crisis that developed when Russia began market reforms in 1992.

Under the old Soviet economic system, nuclear power plants, like the electricity system and every other enterprise, were funded by the government. Managers turned to the state if they needed extra money.

Everything changed in 1992, when the government freed most prices, began privatizing state property and stopped exercising centralized control over the economy.

Management of electricity went from the Ministry of Energy to United Electric Power, the company that buys the electricity from the reactors and distributes it. United Electric Power began charging rates that industry couldn’t afford, and the debt spiral in the energy sector began.

Russia is short on money for training plant personnel, maintaining safety equipment, conducting repairs, refitting older plants, and purchasing spare parts and better equipment to monitor the reactors.

Concerned about the possibility of an accident, the European Union is digging deep into its pockets to help fund extra safety equipment, especially monitoring gear. U.S. officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are also helping the Russian safety inspectors improve their methods for monitoring radiation.

According to Rosenergoatom, which runs Russia’s civilian nuclear industry, stocks of chemicals needed for safe operation of the plants are running out.

″If they can’t get enough money for fuel, what can we expect them to do for safety measures?″ said Dima Litvinov, head of the Russian branch of the environmental group Greenpeace. ″There is no money being put into safety.″

While the phenomenon Russians call ″nyeplatezhi″ or non-payment permeates the entire economy, nuclear industry officials argue their branch is special, given the potential for disaster if something goes wrong.

″Urgent decisions at the state level are needed,″ Boris Antonov, vice president of Rosenergoatom, said in late February.

Rosenergoatom claims it is not being paid by United Electric Power System, which in turn says it is owed billions of rubles by industry and individual consumers and doesn’t have the money to pay for the electricity it buys.

″There is an avalanche of debts,″ said Vladimir Chumachenko, deputy director of commerce at United Electric Power System.

It took a hazardous electrical system, trouble with radiation detectors, and the prospect of thousands of people without power in subzero weather before Rosenergoatom coughed up emergency funds for the Bilibino station, located 3,500 miles from Moscow on the Chukotka peninsula.

Output recently has been sharply cut at reactors near Kursk, Smolensk and St. Petersburg in European Russia because of fuel shortages, and all three plants have been plagued by repeated safety violations and minor accidents.

Earlier ths month, authorities shut down one of the four reactors at the Kola nuclear power station in northwestern Russia to fix a leak in the coolant system. No radiation was reported released.

Russia’s nuclear power plants were owed the equivalent of about $228 million last year, and industry officials believe the debt crisis will worsen in 1994.

In December, the nuclear power plants received 57 percent of the total funds they were owed, a figure that dropped to 25 percent in January and just 14 percent in February.

Environmentalists are concerned that when nuclear power plants do get funds they divert the money from safety to operational costs. Plant managers have to juggle funds among salaries, fuel and safety equipment.

″Nuclear power plants need fuel and it’s expensive. If they can’t pay for fuel, they’ll have to shut down,″ said Adamchik. ″But if there’s only money for fuel and not for safety, then we’ll shut them down ourselves.″

The world’s worst nuclear accident occurred at Chernobyl, north of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, in April 1986, before the breakup of the Soviet Union. An explosion and fire at the power plant’s reactor No. 4 sent a cloud of radiation over large parts of northern and eastern Europe.

The official death toll was 32, but some scientists believe the actual death toll from cancer and related illnesses could be in the thousands. More than 180,000 people were resettled.