Albion Monitor /News

Russian Politics More Important Than Nuclear Safety

Russia steered the agenda away from security issues and threat of "loose nukes"

To aid the reelection of Boris Yeltsin, representatives from the nuclear superpower nations are ignoring safety and environmental concerns about Russia's mismanaged atomic reactors and sloppy controls of fissionable materials, according to a newly released report.

The summit meeting of the so-called "G-7" nations -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States -- will be held in Moscow April 19-20. Also present at the meeting will be leaders from Russia and former Soviet states of the Ukraine and Belarus.

The report, written by Bonn journalist Mark Hibbs, an editor of "Nucleonics Week" who has reported on nuclear issues for ten years, says that the G-7 nations wanted to discuss nuclear materials security issues and the threat of "loose nukes," but Russia steered the agenda toward less-controversial topic of nuclear safety -- and only for civil installations, ignoring any discussion of Russia's nuclear arsenal or power plants.

Turning off power at a naval base nearly triggered a meltdown in a submarine reactor

According to the report, G-7 officials conceded to Russia's demands because any suggestion that Moscow could not control its nuclear inventories would be counterproductive to the "boost Yeltsin" aspect of the summit. Highlighting Russian nuclear security problems would presumably play into the hands of Russian nationalists who will oppose Yeltsin during forthcoming elections.

One issue that was dropped from the agenda concerned management at nuclear power plants, which have been repeatedly threatened by worker's shutdowns over salary demands. Last November, the report says, economic situation at nuclear power plants were growing worse by the day, and that funds had to be found to prevent workers at three reactors from going on strike.

The fundamental problem is Russian law, which in 1994 was changed to virtually forbid power generators from shutting off electricity to individuals and organizations which were not paying their electric bills. That policy was further supported last year, after the decision by a local government to turn off power at a naval base nearly triggered a meltdown in a submarine reactor.

While power prices are not allowed to increase, costs of industrial inputs faced by operators of nuclear reactors -- skilled labor, engineering services, machines and equipment, and fuel -- have risen to Western levels. Officials at the stations admit that the deteriorating financial situation of the reactors is becoming a nuclear safety problem. It should be recalled that at Chernobyl in 1986, safety systems had been switched off because it was felt they interfered with electricity production. Similar violations have been recorded by nuclear regulators at reactors in Russia and Ukraine as recently as 1993.

The conference, to be held on the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion, also was supposed to call for a near-term effort to shut all Chernobyl-type reactors, as according to a 1993 agreement by G-7 nations. But key G-7 countries, particularly the U.S. and Japan, have backed off making any hard commitments to finance replacement designs.

Also dropped from the agenda was discussion of nuclear contraband flowing from the former Soviet Union inventories to the West.

Under the USSR, the smuggling of nuclear goods was unheard of. Since 1990, however, over a thousand cases of stolen items have been reported by Western governments, primarily in Europe. Most of the cases are frauds, and all but a handful involve low-grade uranium. In 1993, however, three cases involving sub-significant quantities of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide were discovered. But no evidence has yet been proven that any of these materials have been stolen and diverted to "rogue" states.

Expected at the summit is an angry confrontation with Russia against Belarus and Ukraine. The latter two countries hold Russia responsible for Chernobyl and, thus far without success, have demanded compensation. Until G-7 countries weighed in, Moscow sought to limit the participation of both Belarus and Ukraine at the meeting.

Hibbs' report was released by the Center for War, Peace, and the News Media at New York University and is available through the Internet.

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Albion Monitor April 15, 1996 (

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