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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lithuania's Nuclear Future

Air Date: Week of

Bruce Gellerman, of member station WBUR tours the largest of the Chernobyl-style nuclear power plants in the former Soviet Union. Despite modifications since the Chernobyl accident seven years ago, Western experts says the plant near Vilnius, Lithuania remains inherently dangerous. Lithuania depends on the plant for 85 percent of its electricity.


CURWOOD: The chemical explosion at Russia's Tomsk-7 nuclear weapons plant in April sent radioactive plutonium dust into the air and contaminated at least 50 square miles of land. It was the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl and a chilling reminder of the nuclear dangers remaining in the former Soviet Union. These include 14 Chernobyl-style power generators still operating in the former East Bloc. The plants have such serious design flaws that many experts say they should be shut down, but they provide badly needed power, and in Lithuania the largest of the Chernobyl-style reactors provides nearly all of the country's electricity.

Reporter Bruce Gellerman of member station WBUR in Boston recently visited Lithuania and has this report.

(Sound of news anchor: "Good morning. out of control . . ." Fade under)

GELLERMAN: The reactors at Ignalina, 50 miles northeast of Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, were built exactly like those at Chernobyl, with one major difference. Ignalina's are 50 percent more powerful. they're the most powerful electric-generating nuclear reactors ever built.

(Opera music up and under)

GELLERMAN: Workers flash their identification badges to guards and silently push past turnstiles in the drab cement and stone lobby of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, fifty miles northeast of Lithuania's capital, Vilnius. . A guard's portable radio plays opera in an unsuccessful attempt to cheer up the atmosphere. Before Chernobyl, the nuclear plant was off-limits even to international atomic energy inspectors. Now even Western journalists can visit.

(Conversation in Russian, sound of lock opening, "Let's go," fade under)

GELLERMAN: Ignalina's deputy chief engineer, Alexander Dvoretsky, enters the code into a digital lock and leads the way through a maze of long hallways. The worn, brown linoleum-covered floors make Ignalina look shabby, much older than the ten years it's been operating. Dvoretsky, like 90 percent of those who work at Ignalina, is an ethnic Russian. There aren't enough trained Lithuanians to run the plant.

GOVORUSHKO (translating): So we're going to the turbines.

GELLERMAN: My translator, Yulia Govorushko, and I are given dosimeter radiation detectors. We joke nervously about how funny we look as we put on white lab coast, floppy hats and special shoes - protection against radioactive leaks. Dvoretsky laughs and tries to allay our obvious fears.

GOVORUSHKO (translating): If there were any danger, at any place, we don't take our guests there.

GELLERMAN: Still, all I can think of is one word, Chernobyl. Ignalina is virtually identical to the ill-fated plant, with one major difference: Ignalina's reactors are 50 percent more powerful. They're the most powerful electric-generating nuclear reactors ever built.

(Sound of turbines)

GELLERMAN: The sound of Ignalina's nuclear-powered turbines is deafening, the generating room, enormous.

GELLERMAN: Russians didn't build things on a small scale. How long is this?
DVORUSHKO (in Russian, then translating): Yeah, about one kilometer, about a thousand meters.

GELLERMAN: Ignalina's two reactors produce 85 percent of Lithuania's electricity. Construction on two other reactors was stopped after the Chernobyl disaster. Independent Lithuania now owns it and has the increasingly difficult responsibility to run it safely.

GELLERMAN: Now that there's no more Soviet Union, do you have problems getting replacement parts and equipment.
GOVORUSHKO (translating): We always had the problems with getting, to replace the equipment, but now it's getting worse and worse and now there are not only problems in getting the details or equipment but the prices are unbelievably high.

GELLERMAN: Dvoretsky says if he had his way, he would have built a power plant with Western-style pressurized-water reactors, but he explains that the Soviet -designed graphite core reactors at Ignalina had their advantages when they were constructed. Based on a 1950's military design, they're relatively cheap to build and operate. The plant can be refueled without stopping the reactors, and the Soviet military liked them because weapons-grade plutonium can be extracted from used fuel rods. But nuclear safety expert James Higgins of Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York says these reactors, called RBMK's, are inherently dangerous and lack basic safety features. Higgins recently spent two weeks at Ignalina as part of an international atomic energy inspection team.

HIGGINS: One of the concerns, and one of the real design deficiencies of the RBMK-type reactor is that it's got a partial containment, but the top of the reactor itself does not have a containment on it. It's when you have a major accident that you need the containment and that's what happened at Chernobyl, they had the accident and there wasn't a containment and they released all the radioactive material.

GELLERMAN: The explosions at Chernobyl were so powerful it's unlikely any containment shell could have withstood the blasts. Anyway, it's impossible to build one around Ignalina . The top of the reactor has to be open so fuel rods can be replaced. The delicate replacement process is done from a control room that looks like the inside of a spaceship from a 1950's science fiction movie.

GOVORUSHKO: Oy, yoy, yoy.

(Sound of door opening)

GELLERMAN: Ignalina's control room is filled with banks of knobs, dials, meters and video screens. Each night, the plant operator explains, a few of the 1660 fuel rods that power the reactor are replaced.

GOVORUSHKO (translating): Probably it's much safer to unload and, unload the fuel while the reactor is stopped, but our reactor is designed the way that it has to get unloaded and loaded while it is producing the energy.

GELLERMAN: The fuel reloading procedure is monitored carefully. Deputy Chief Engineer Dvoretsky points to a red button mounted behind a plastic case. It's there just in case.

GOVORUSHKO (translating): Well, he just presses the button and it stops the reactor. So we're not that different from any other plant, just we stop the reactor this way too.
GELLERMAN: And it stops.
GOVORUSHKO (translating): Yeah, it stops.

GELLERMAN: That's what operators at Chernobyl tried to do, but they overlooked a fatal flaw in the RBMK's basic design, called a "positive feedback coefficient." Under certain operating conditions, the reactors don't stop, but can speed up uncontrollably. At Chernobyl the operators, conducting an unauthorized test of the reactor, deliberately ignored safety warnings. By the time they tried to stop the reactor, it was too late. Harvard physicist Richard Wilson has visited Chernobyl 4 times since the accident.

WILSON: The worst thing, the worst feature of the design, was the last moment when they decided to stop the reactor, the test was over, and they put in the control rods, shutdown rods. The shutdown rod design was unbelievably bad. The reactor was sufficiently unstable at that moment, that in that half-second the reactor blew up.
NEGRIVODA (translated): Well, the plant works quite satisfactorily.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Gennadiy Negrivoda has been chief engineer at Ignalina Nuclear since it opened. He says the plant operators have learned their lesson from the Chernobyl disaster and that Ignalina has been renovated and modernized.

NEGRIVODA (translated) : Everybody knew the reactors were inherently unstable, but everybody thought it was possible to operate them without serious danger of explosion. Until Chernobyl I also thought the same way.
GELLERMAN: He was surprised, then, by Chernobyl.
NEGRIVODA (translated): Yes, the Chernobyl accident was very shocking and surprising, but afterwards all the problems were solved, and now it is impossible to have any sort of accident like that, under any circumstances. It's not explosive and it's not dangerous.

GELLERMAN: Negrivoda admits that Ignalina isn't the best nuclear reactor, but, he says, it's not the worst either, explaining that now the reactors are operated at reduced power, and a few control rods are always in the core. Over the last three years, the plant has had a good record of unplanned automatic shutdowns. But accidents still happen here. Since 1989 there have been 3 serious failures of primary safety systems, and American safety expert James Higgins says despite the changes in Ignalina's reactors, the basic design flaw that caused a runaway reaction at Chernobyl remains.

HIGGINS: Clearly the design couldn't be licensed in the US. In the long term, these RBMK's should be shut down and replaced by something else.

GELLERMAN: The International Atomic Energy Agency considers all the Chernobyl-style plants unsafe. But despite the agency's concern, the decision to shut the plant down is not its to make. It's a political-economic one for Lithuania. And right now, closing Ignalina is out of the question. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Lithuania has been unable to obtain back up electricity from neighboring countries. It relies almost entirely on Ignalina's power, and economically-troubled Lithuania now wants to export the plant's surplus energy for desperately-needed hard currency. Higgins fears the nation is dangerously dependent upon Ignalina, putting operators under pressure to run the plant no matter what.

HIGGINS: Lithuania has become like its own little electrical island, and so what that does is it puts an awful lot of importance on that plant and potentially could influence the management of the plant, if they have a problem that's borderline in terms of, well, do I shut down and fix it now or do I continue to operate.

LOZORAITIS: Even if Ignalina would shut down, I really don't see any dangers. So I wouldn't be so pessimistic.

GELLERMAN: Stysys Lozoraitis, Lithuania's Ambassador to the United States, says in an emergency, operators could shut down Ignalina, and would. Lithuania's political leaders are in a difficult position. After Chernobyl, while still under Communist rule, Lithuanian nationalists seized upon Ignalina as an issue to rally support for independence. They charged Moscow was committing ecological crime by continuing to run the reactors. But now, independent Lithuania finds itself too heavily dependent upon the nuclear power plant to shut it down. Ambassador Lozoraitis says eventually he would like to see Ignalina replaced with a conventional generating plant.

LOZORAITIS: It's very simple. If something of a sort of Chernobyl explosion happened in Lithuania, I am afraid that would be the end of our country, because let's not forget the territory, it's much smaller than the territory of the Ukraine.
GELLERMAN: Could that happen under the present circumstances?
LOZORAITIS: Well, personally, I'm convinced unfortunately, I don't want to believe it. Let's say it might happen, although the experts which are now in a dilemma deny it and Ignalina is in rather good shape, and so on - well, let's hope for the best.

GELLERMAN: Ambassador Lozoraitis says the international community must help if Ignalina and the other 13 Chernobyl-design plants still operating in the former Soviet Union are to remain safe. Nearby Sweden, mindful that nuclear accidents don't respect national boundaries, has so far supplied most of the financial aid and technical support to improve Ignalina. President Clinton recently pledged $15 million dollars to improve the safety of Soviet-designed reactors, and the seven leading industrial nations hope to raise $300 million dollars more over the next three years. But it's conservatively $10 billion dollars is needed to assure another Chernobyl disaster doesn't occur. For Living on Earth, this is Bruce Gellerman.



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