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Thursday, 21 September, 2000, 22:25 GMT 23:25 UK
Russia's nuclear dangers
Russian nuclear power station
Russian nuclear power station: - safety ' a low priority'
By Russian affairs analyst Steven Eke

The sinking of the Kursk submarine and the fire at Moscow's Ostankino television tower are indicative of the poor state of much of Russia's infrastructure.

But nothing raises as much concern as Russia's nuclear facilities.


There have been several cases of smuggling of stolen radioactive material

Russia has not officially responded to a European Commission warning on Wednesday that Russia's only nuclear reprocessing facility - Mayak - was at risk of a serious accident.

The Mayak plant was built in 1949, and it sits on a spot described as 'the most polluted place on earth'.

It has seen a series of serious accidents, many involving the release of radioactivity.

But Mayak is just one of Russia's nuclear facilities. The country has almost 100, situated in 10 'nuclear cities'.

These were - and mostly remain - closed cities. But today they are also the location for some of Russia's most dangerous rotting infrastructure.

'Disregard' for safety

As life has become harder, the cities can no longer attract the best specialists from Moscow and St Petersburg. The central authorities have little money for investment and maintenance is a low priority.

Chernobyl nuclear plant
Chernobyl: The world's worst nuclear disaster

The difficult economic conditions have damaged the working culture at Russia's nuclear facilities. During the Soviet era production took priority over safety. There is still a very low level of safety awareness.

This disregard for safety has led to nuclear plants dumping radioactive waste into rivers and lakes. The Russian military poured liquid and solid radioactive waste from submarines and icebreakers into the Arctic seas. But it was only in 1993, that Moscow confirmed that 18 nuclear-powered submarines had been dumped.

Incredibly - even today - Moscow refuses to sign international agreements prohibiting the dumping of nuclear waste at sea. Russia just does not have the resources to construct suitable storage facilities.

Smuggling

The nuclear safety worries are not limited to the military sphere. There is also grave concern over the civilian use of nuclear technology.


Russia needs extensive international assistance to deal with its nuclear legacy

Poor controls over radiation sources used in hospitals and research institutes mean that there have been several cases of smuggling of stolen radioactive material. And almost 60 Soviet-designed nuclear power stations remain operative in the former USSR and Eastern Europe.

Their flawed design means that radioactive contamination would be unavoidable, should an accident occur. Unlike Western reactors, the Soviet-designed models don't have containment devices.

But the international community does not have the will - let alone the funds - to close and replace them with safer alternatives. And turning them off is not a viable option in countries with an unreliable electricity supply.

Russia needs extensive international assistance to deal with its nuclear legacy. International involvement is already fairly extensive, with the United States leading the way in clear-up programmes.

But the responsibility for creating an effective regulatory framework - and for the desperately needed shift in attitude - is ultimately Russia's.

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See also:

11 Sep 00 | Europe
Russia unplugged nuclear sites
15 Sep 00 | Europe
Kremlin denies Kursk deception
24 May 99 | Sci/Tech
Chernobyl legacy mounts
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