Nuclear Revival in the
Post-Communist World
by Minard Hamilton

Western Bailout of Eastern Reactors
Reactor Safety in the CIS
Western Utilities in a Feeding Frenzy
Democratic Decision-Making at Risk
What Role for the Anti-Nuclear Movement?

This piece has some extremely outdated information - for instance US Export-Import Bank did finally approve the Temelin contract between CEZ and Westinghouse - but we are bringing it to you because it will fill you in on the general movement of the western nuclear lobby toward the former Communist coutries of Eastern Europe and the history of nuclear power in this area.

In 1986, a series of explosions ripped apart the reactor at Chernobyl, located 80 miles northwest of Kiev. Shortly after a wave of post-Chernobyl antipathy toward nuclear power forced the then- Soviet Union to cease work on a large number of partially constructed nuclear power plants. Hundreds of thousands of citizens in Europe hit the streets to protest the cloud of radioactive contamination that had been released by the crippled reactor. And western nuclear experts said all Chernobyl-type reactors, known as RBMKs (graphite moderated channel type reactor), were unsafe and should be shut down promptly in both the USSR and Eastern Europe. This position was even taken by the head of the giant German nuclear engineering firm, Siemens International, who said, "The only answer is to shut them (RB- MKs) down as soon as possible."

Early this year, just six and a half years later, Russia announced plans to nearly double the country's nuclear capacity by constructing 27 new nuclear reactors. It also announced that the dangerous RBMKs would remain online and that an additional RBMK under construction at the time of the accident at Chernobyl would be completed. Western governments greeted this announcement with dead silence. Meanwhile, Western nuclear corporations vied for what they hoped would be lucrative contracts to supply everything from engineering design expertise to slick public relations know-how. What happened both in the Western governments and the former Soviet Union in the six years since Chernobyl to account for this astounding development - a development bad for both the environment and democratic decision-making in the East and West?

Western Bailout of Eastern Reactors

The nuclear industry in the West is in the doldrums and the break-up of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent republics in Central and Eastern Europe is seen as a tremendous windfall for reviving the industry's fortunes. The Petroleum Economist stated in the fall of 1991, "Western nuclear companies, which lost most of their business after the Chernobyl disaster, hope to win a steady flow of orders from Eastern Europe for grafting new technology to old reactors."'

Funding for the bailout of rickety reactors in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Central and Eastern Europe, as well as for the construction of new reactors comes not only from the nuclear power industry in the West. Dollars are also taken out of the pockets of taxpayers who fund governmental agencies such as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Export-Import Bank, international entities such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, and multilateral development banks like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

It is ironic that much of the public money going to finance the rescue of the nuclear option in the East is coming from governments in countries where public opinion has turned against nuclear power. De facto moratoria on additional nuclear power plant construction are in place in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands. Sweden has stated that it will phase out its nuclear plants by 2010. In Italy, the parliament has voted to dismantle the country's three defunct reactors. Austria, Denmark, Norway, and Ireland have renounced the nuclear option entirely, and Finland's nuclear program is at a standstill. Only France continues to build nuclear power plants.

In the United States, the nuclear industry is not faring any better. The accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the rocketing cost of new plants (the Shoreham reactor on Long Island cost $5.5 billion), and vigorous public opposition have nearly killed the industry. Since 1973 there have been no new orders for nuclear power plants in the United States that were not subsequently cancelled. And an estimated 67 percent of the public is opposed to further construction of nuclear plants.

Western nuclear companies are not just interested in repairing unsafe reactors; they have been pressing new Eastern European governments to complete partially constructed reactors and build new reactors, ignoring safer, more job-intensive energy conservation strategies. It has become clear that when nuclear industries in the West speak of safety, the safety of nuclear investments is what they have uppermost in mind. West European firms are worried that another Chernobyl-type disaster in the CIS or Central and Eastern Europe would lead to a new groundswell of public hostility toward nuclear power. As Klaus Toepfer, German Minister for Environment and Nuclear Safety, explained to the Japanese Atomic Industrial Forum in April 1992, "We must protect Western nuclear investment by making sure there is no catastrophic accident in the East."

Reactor Safety in the CIS

Whatever the motivation for addressing the problem, there is cause for immediate concern regarding the safe operation of over 59 reactors in the former Soviet bloc. In the CIS, there are 15 RBMKs. In addition to inadequate containment, RBMKs have hard-to-control power surges, easily ruptured fuel channels, and inadequate emergency core cooling systems. (In a typical reactor, the uranium fuel is contained within a cylindrical steel vessel. In the event of an accident, water floods the reactor to cool it down. The piping, back-up electrical systems,and pumps are called the emergency core cooling system.) The argument that these reactors are too unsafe to operate is supported by the numerous accidents and fires in the three reactors at Chernobyl that remained on-line after unit #4 blew up. One of these has since been closed down; the other two are due to close at the end of this year.

Two other types of reactors widely dispersed in the former Soviet Union, known as the VVER 440/230s and 213s (pressurized water reactors), have significant design problems as well. These reactors have inadequate emergency core cooling systems, inadequate containment, insufficient redundancy of emergency safety systems, and problems with reactor vessel embrittlement - the steel vessels that hold the nuclear fuel become brittle during the fissioning process. Because of these problems, several major environmental groups including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth International have called for the shut-down of all of these plants. Shortly after the reunification of Germany, the government in Bonn shut down five VVER 440/ 230s at Greifswald in what was formerly East Germany. The reason? Minister Toepfer stated the reactors could not be made safe.

There seems to be a double standard here. Unsafe reactors are impermissible in Germany, but may operate in the former Soviet Union. On January 28, 1993, the Group of Seven (G7) consisting of Japan, Canada, the United States, Britain, Italy, Germany, and France announced the establishment of a $700 million fund to improve safety at East European reactors considered too unsafe to operate in the West. The fund will be administered by the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. France and Germany have contributed 90 million ECUs to the kitty.

This fund will be administered in several phases, with stage one limited to the training of staff and, as one critic put it, some "bells and whistles." In the second stage, heavy· investment in back fitting reactors would take place, with an estimated price tag of about $ 150 to $200 million for each reactor. Ultimately, the price tag for this attempt to rescue the nuclear industry could be $10 to $20 billion.

How far the bailout of the Central and East European nuclear industry will go is hard to predict at this juncture. In just one country, the Czech Republic, at least seven major international corporations and five European utilities are involved, as well as various international lending authorities. Westinghouse has contracted with the Czech state-owned utility to provide fabricated uranium fuel and $225 million worth of instrumentation to two 1000-megawatt nuclear plants at Temelin when the plants are completed. A loan of $134 million from the Export-Import Bank to cover the costs of the instrumentation has been given preliminary approval. Thus, the publicly funded Export-Import Bank would be directly underwriting the expansion of nuclear power in a country where four unsafe reactors are already in operation. As of yet, Ken Brody, President Clinton's nominee to head the Export-Import Bank, has not taken a position on the loan.

Belgian financial institutions are also involved in the Westinghouse contract, and the government agency Ducroire is providing credit insurance for the project. Another U.S. firm, General Physics International Engineering and Simulation, Inc. (known as GPI). has a contract pending for $10 million; and the French firm, Cegelec, has a contract pending for $ 17 million for security systems at the Temelin nuclear plants.

Economic support for nuclear power plants in Eastern Europe is not just coming from lucrative contracts underwritten by Europe- an or U.S. finance agencies, but through Western utility agreements to buy electricity generated by East European nuclear plants; Austria began purchasing energy from Czechslovakia in 1956 and the Czech utility CEZ has hoped that 50 percent of its exports will be snapped up by Austria and Germany. Recently, because of strong anti-nuclear sentiment in Austria, a proposed utility agreement to buy electricity from Ukraine has come under strong criticism. Whether that deal can be blocked by the Austrian government remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the Swiss utility NOK has signed a deal with CEZ to import over 800 million killowatt hours over a 10-year period from four antiquated nuclear power reactors at Dukovany in the Czech Republic, and is working on a contract to buy electricity from the Temelin plants. Privatization is an additional means whereby Western capital is being used to promote the nuclear option. Siemens is negotiating to buy a 67 percent interest in the formerly state-run Skoda Energy in the Czech Republic.

Assistance from multilateral development banks is also in the offing. The World Bank currently does not provide financing for the "completion or expansion of nuclear power plants". Pressure is coming from the G7 for the reversal of this policy with respect to Eastern Europe. And the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is following an aggressively pro-nuclear policy. As yet none of these financial and governmental institutions have been responsive to the fact that nuclear power is a highly controversial issue in the Czech Republic. Fifty-six towns surrounding the Temelin nuclear plants are vigorously opposed to completion of the plants. Elsewhere in the Czech Republic proponents of the nuclear option are taking advantage of smog alerts and polution spewed out by dirty coal-fired plants to promote allegedly "clean" nuclear power plants.

Western Utilities in a Feeding Frenzy

What is happening in the Czech Republic is being repeated throughout the region. Plans to build new nuclear power plants, retrofit old plants, and buy nuclear-generated electricity are currently pending in Ukraine, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Romania. John Willis of Greenpeace International calls it an "old- fashioned feeding frenzy" that is based on the presumption that "money makes safe." This presumption is highly questionable. There is no reliable track record on how, for example, a Western-style control room computer system can be stitched onto out-of-date reactors that would be shut down under Western regulations. In addition, in the West it has been shown to be uneconomical to attempt to fix problems like reactor embrittlement. On February 26, 1992, the Yankee Rowe plant in western Massachusetts was permanently closed because the utility decided it would be prohibitively expensive to repair the brittle reactor vessel.

Furthermore, backfitting can make a reactor more unsafe - to upgrade cooling systems requires cutting into the primary cooling system, adding new piping, and creating new potential locations for the release of radioactive materials. Add to these problems poor materials used in original plant construction, shoddy documentation of the location of valves, welds, and pipes, as well as inadequately trained and poorly paid technicians, and you have what John Willis describes as "housekeeping in a burning building. Such (back fitting) programs will not reduce risk but will rather extend virtually the same risks further into the future."

How deeply Western technological know-how and money is involved in the plans to backfit old reactors and build the 27 new reactors in Russia itself is hard to determine. To date, however, Framatome, the French Ministry of Atomic Energy, EdF (Electricite de France), Cogema (the French state-owned nuclear engineering company), the U.S. firm GPI, and British Nuclear Fuels have either signed contracts or have contracts under negotiation regarding spare parts, design expertise, computer simulators, fuel fabrication, fuel reprocessing, and public relations. Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States or TACIS, a multilateral loan agency funded by the European Community, allocated 54 million ECUs to nuclear safety in 1991. In 1992, the figure almost doubled, jumping to 95 million ECUs.

Democratic Decision-Making at Risk

Included under the innocuous-sounding rubric "nuclear safety" are activities definitely unhealthy for democratic decision-making both in the East and West. An example is the four million ECUs of TACIS funding that is proposed for two nuclear energy "public information" centers in Moscow and in Balakovo on the Volga. Both EdF and British Nuclear Fuels have been vying for this contract. According to Friends of the Earth, Balakovo has been designated as the site for one of these centers because Minatome, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, sees the center as a "key method of convincing local people to drop opposition" to a partly-built reactor at the site." In other words, via TACIS, taxpayers in Europe will help to soften opposition to an unpopular reactor in the CIS.

Just as TACIS is being used to promote a plant unpopular with people living near the plant in Russia, so would the Export-Import loan to the Czech government for a Westinghouse upgrade or for the Temelin nuclear reactors undercut local opponents of the plant. If the Westinghouse deal goes through, citizens of the Czech Republic will be hard-pressed to play a significant role in choosing an ecnnomically sound and ecologically sensitive energy strategy. How can ordinary citizens compete for the attention of government officials against Westinghouse's slick information and reams of spread sheets? Who is going to hear the underfunded voices for renewable energy strategies that, in the long term, would generate more jobs, if Westinghouse is already hiring workers?

Both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have done studies showing that energy conservation, co-generation, renewable energy, plus the use of natural gas, could rapidly and economically substitute for nuclear power in the CIS and Central and Eastern Europe. Such a shift in energy policy could be implemented even more quickly than in the West because the level of industrialization is relatively low. In Eastern Europe, for example, inefficient heavy machinery industries are the region's largest consumer of energy. Plant modernizations could greatly decrease energy demand, and infusions of Western capital would be far better spent on this effort than on rebuilding nuclear power plants.

Furthermore, Western capital invested in new energy-efficient technologies could eliminate the need for antiquated nuclear plants to stay on line. Take the case of energy-efficient lightbulbs. Research conducted at Lawrence Liverinore Laboratory in California shows that $7.5 million invested in a compact fluorescent light bulb factory would produce enough energy savings, once the light bulbs were in use, to eliminate the need for several nuclear power plants.

The bailout of the Central and Eastern European nuclear plants, the continued operation of upgraded RBMKs, and the launching of a new generation of nuclear plants in the CIS are all coinciding with a global economic crunch. Although money is tight, agencies such as Euratom reputedly are poised to approve $ 1.2 billion ECUs for the bailout of aging reactors in the former Soviet Union.

At a meeting in Vienna in November 1992, senior Russian nuclear officials told American and European nuclear experts that plans to upgrade the RBMKs were proceeding nicely. According to Malcolm Browne of the New York Times, the Western experts were "impressed." Browne explained that these experts did not have any regulatory authority over the CIS nuclear program, but "their opinions carry weight with international lending agencies from which the CIS is seeking assistance." According to Greenpeace, which has an office in Moscow, many in the Yeltsin government support a transition to natural gas plus renewable energy strategies. In September 1992, Alexei Yablokov, Ecology Counselor to President Yeltsin, stated he was "absolutely convinced...that we can get by without nuclear power." The pitch by the Russians at the meeting in Vienna represented a shift in the political scene in the CIS. Minatome, a powerful ministry closely tied to conservative elements in Russia, has (like the U.S. Department of Energy) been responsible for both nuclear weapons production and nuclear energy production. It is bringing in desperately needed hard currency through the sale of uranium and enriched uranium to countries outside the CIS. Russian President Boris Yeltsin is said to be reluctant to cross Minatome on the issue of nuclear power. Western governments wanting to back Yeltsin in his struggle against his opponents have put the hazards of RBMKs on the back-burner.

What Role for the Anti-Nuclear Movement?

These political realities, the powerful investment opportunity Western nuclear companies see in the CIS, the pro-nuclear bias of international lending agencies, and Russia's need for hard currency from the West and Japan all give a strong impetus to nuclear investment. Millions of dollars may go down this particular drain in the short term. In the long run, it is unlikely that popular opposition to nuclear power both in the West and the East can be dampened. Popular opposition to nuclear power in the CIS is substantial, with referenda on plants at Bashkir and Voronezh showing 99 percent and 97 percent opposed to construction of local plants. In the West, the same citizens who took to the streets after Chernobyl are now suffering the effects of a persistent economic recession. Once informed that their hard-earned tax dollars and electric utility bills are going to fund either the doomed-to-fail refurbishing of dangerous reactors or a generation of new nuclear plants, citizens will be ripe for a new wave of anti-nuclear protests.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have started a campaign to stop the bailout of nuclear industry in the former Communist world. Clearly, a grassroots movement must be mobilized in both the East and West. Such a movement needs to put pressure on institutions now operating without true democratic accountability - particularly the multinational lending institutions - to invest in conservation and renewable energy strategies that do not risk another Chernobyl-type disaster. One can only hope that such mobilization will occur before another catastrophic accident spews radioactivity around the globe.


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