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

May 7, 1993

Air Date: May 7, 1993


Safety of US Nuclear Weapons Plants Debated / Laura Knoy

Laura Knoy reports from Washington on new report by the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Safety that US nuclear weapons plants are often accident-prone and poorly run. The study comes amid debate over the department's restructuring of the nuclear waste cleanup process. (03:44)

Interview with Russia's Top Environmental Advisor

Steve talks with Dr. Alexey Yablokov, top environmental advisor to Boris Yeltsin, about past mistakes and future strategies for Russia's handling of nuclear waste and nuclear power. (05:27)

Lithuania's Nuclear Future / Bruce Gellerman

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. (16:46)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: John Keefe, Janice Windborne, Laura Knoy, Bruce Gellerman
GUEST: Alexei Yablokov

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Making atom bombs is probably the dirtiest business in the world, and cleaning up bomb factories has become both vexing and expensive. A new report at the Department of Energy says US nuclear weapons plants are plagued by shoddy work, poor controls, and perhaps even sabotage.

GALLDIN: The thought of people for whatever reasons mucking around with the equipment is very serious, and something that we can't downplay.

CURWOOD: Meanwhile in Russia, Boris Yeltsin's top environmental advisor says the former Soviet atom bomb plants are out of control.

YABLOKOV: I predict that during this year we will have at least couple of accidents, not like Chernobyl scale but like Tomsk-7 scale.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, coming up right after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

US trade officials and seven major environmental groups appear close to agreement over the environmental provisions they want included in the North American Free Trade pact. From Washington, John Keefe has the story.

KEEFE: At a meeting with US trade representative Mickey Kantor, the groups said they want NAFTA side agreements to include the creation of an environmental commission. The commission would make sure the US, Canada and Mexico strictly enforce their environmental laws to prevent any country from becoming a pollution haven for industry. Among other things, the groups want to make sure legitimate environmental standards cannot be challenged as unfair restraints of trade. Kantor's office said he agreed to the overall spirit of the requests. According to sources at the meeting, Kantor said he was confident he could negotiate a treaty the groups could support. The seven organizations include the National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Notably absent from the coalition are the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. The Sierra Club says the enforcement measures described to Kantor are not strong enough to protect the environment. For Living on Earth, I'm John Keefe in Washington.

NUNLEY: Laws that give property rights priority over environmental regulation have recently been passed in three states, and are being considered in 23 others. That's according to a survey by the National Law Journal . The property-rights laws are based on a legal doctrine developed during the Reagan Administration. It considers restrictions on land use to be "takings," for which property owners are entitled to compensation under the Fifth Amendment. Such arguments have fared poorly in Congress and the Federal courts.

In the first case of its kind to go to trial in the US, a California jury has found that magnetic fields from electric power lines were not responsible for a child's cancer. From KPBS in San Diego, Janice Windborne reports.

WINDBORNE: The parents of Mallory Zuidema say the mass of power lines over their home caused the 5-year-old to develop a rare form of kidney cancer while still in the womb. But San Diego Gas and Electric, the company that owns the lines, argued there is no specific research linking the child's disease, Wilm's Tumor, with EMF's. The jury took only four hours to agree the utility had no responsibility to warn the parents that power lines could be dangerous. Lawyers for the power company say the case settles the question whether EMF's cause cancer. But plaintiff's lawyers say there is stronger evidence linking EMF's and other kinds of cancer, including leukemia. Several lawsuits claiming that link are pending. For Living on Earth, I'm Janice Windborne in San Diego.

NUNLEY: After several failed attempts, a move to make the EPA a Cabinet office may finally succeed this year. Opposition to the bill appears to be minimal in the House, according to the office of one of its sponsors, Democrat John Conyers of Michigan. The bill passed the Senate in early May, with amendments to create a division of environmental justice and to study the costs and benefits of new environmental regulations.

This is Living on Earth.

Nearly 50 Western countries have agreed on a clean-up plan for
Central and Eastern Europe. Drawn up with the help of the World Bank, the plan encourages former Eastern Bloc countries to give priority to improving air and drinking-water quality. Just 30 million dollars has been offered to jump-start the effort, but EPA Administrator Carol Browner says the West can also offer valuable experience .

BROWNER: It's, I think, a real opportunity to work together to make sure that these countries who are eager for this information, have it and they have it in a way that they can use it and prevent problems from occurring in the future.

NUNLEY: Under the plan, the West will push the East to adopt cheap environmental solutions such as energy efficiency and waste reduction.

"Acid shock" is hitting lakes and streams in New England, following a late spring thaw. The shock is caused by the release of acid pollution, built up in the first normal snowpack after a decade of relatively snowless winters. Dr. Paul Godfrey, of Massachusetts' Acid Rain Monitoring Project, says it's causing the worst acid rain damage in ten years, and calls into question the value of the emissions caps under the new Clean Air Act. But other observers say it's not fair to judge the act's impact until after 1995, when new acid rain provisions kick in.

A Federal ban on log exports from state forests is unconstitutional. That's the finding of a Federal court in an appeal brought by the state of Washington. State officials argued successfully that the export ban illegally robbed Washington of forest revenue from Japan, where prices are much higher than in the US. Congress imposed the ban in 1990 to protect state forests from overcutting, and to provide more logs for struggling domestic sawmills.

Non-smokers may breathe easier in Vermont, starting this summer. Governor Howard Dean is expected to sign one of the broadest anti-smoking laws in the nation. It would cover government buildings, restaurants, and shopping malls, while exempting bars and some social clubs. Supporters say the bill would protect the health of non-smokers. Opponents say it's discriminatory and would disrupt business.

That's this week's environmental news, I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Safety of US Nuclear Weapons Plants Debated

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Several years ago, the US Department of Energy began the huge job of cleaning up the factories that made the atom bombs, but the sites are still plagued by poor work and safety records. And now there are even questions of sabotage. All this is detailed in a new report, written by the department's top nuclear safety official, who has since left the agency. The report comes amid a controversy over plans by the new Energy Secretary, Hazel O'Leary, to revamp the entire nuclear cleanup program. From Washington, Laura Knoy has the story.

KNOY: The report by DOE's Office of Nuclear Safety says the "likelihood of a disaster" at US nuclear weapons factories is "very high." It charges the Department fails to protect plant workers, the public, and the environment. Before he resigned a few weeks ago, Steven Blush headed the office that wrote the study. Blush reviewed accidents or potential accidents at nuclear weapons facilities over the past two years, and he found more than 2,000.

BLUSH: Some involved workers inhaling or ingesting radionucleids in the workplaces. In other cases, they took contamination out of the, off-site into the public community. And others involved spills and releases of one kind or another.

KNOY: Blush says with radioactive material, a certain amount of contamination will occur, given the nature of the work. However . . .

BLUSH: What we thought we saw was an underlying problem with management of the facilities, that many of these incidents were avoidable.

KNOY: The report says poor maintenance is behind most of the accidents, and that many facilities are deteriorating with age. The study also highlights a problem that surprised most experts - more than a dozen cases of worker sabotage, where employees deliberately caused trouble. In one incident, workers unloading a drum onto a truck accidentally spilled a radioactive substance. They weren't contaminated, but one employee saw a chance to make some money from the incident. He stole some of the material, went to the bathroom of a nearby hotel, and put the substance into a sample of his urine to try to show he was contaminated. In the process, he also contaminated the bathroom. Michael Galldin is the head of DOE Public Affairs.

GALLDIN: The thought of people, for whatever reason, be they insidious or foolish, mucking around with the equipment is very serious, and it's something that we can't downplay or refuse to recognize the significance of. I think it was presented in the report deliberately to capture the attention of the press. I mean, you have to understand the political situation, what's going on, why the report was even written.

KNOY: Galldin calls Steve Blush's study "self-serving," an effort to save his job. Much of the report is a criticism of Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's reorganization of the department. O'Leary's combining four separate safety agencies, including Blush's former office, under one larger department. O'Leary is also returning more power to DOE headquarters in Washington. Former Energy Secretary James Watkins had given much of the responsibility for safety to local nuclear plant managers. Many charge that put safety right in the laps of those people who failed to do the job in the first place. O'Leary's centralization reverses that policy. Her decision has prompted criticism from Watkins and Republican Senator William Cohen of Maine. But about a dozen other members of Congress and outside nuclear experts are pleased. James Werner is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He praises the Blush report's list of problems at nuclear plants, but Werner says O'Leary's restructuring is the way to correct them.

WERNER: Steve Blush is wrong when he says the reorganization won't work; I believe it's the best way to go - Steve Blush is right, though, when he raises concerns about the safety problems that are out there. They need attention. Steve Blush was correct to draw attention to those. He may not have done it correctly, but now the work has to go on to fix those safety problems.

KNOY: The Energy Department's Michael Galldin says DOE is assessing the Blush report and will investigate all the allegations. For Living on Earth, this is Laura Knoy in Washington.

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Interview with Russia's Top Environmental Advisor

CURWOOD: A new report by the Russian Federation confirms that the Soviet military dumped massive amounts of high-level radioactive waste into the world's oceans, in flagrant violation of international agreements the government had signed. The report was written by Alexei Yablokov, a former member of the Soviet Union's Supreme Soviet, a former president of Greenpeace Russia, and now the top environmental advisor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. I recently spoke with Dr. Yablokov in the Watertown, Massachusetts offices of the environmental research group Earthwatch, where he's a member of the scientific board of advisors. I asked Dr. Yablokov if he could detail the extent of the nuclear dumping.

YABLOKOV: How much, nobody knows exactly. We count that about, more than 2 million curie, maybe better estimation 2 and a half million curie, we dumped only in Kara Sea, that's the worst polluted place in world ocean now. We dumped in Kara Sea 70 weapons; 7 of them contain nuclear fuel. It was 25 years ago, and nobody knows exactly how real level radioactivity now. This is an enormous question, we have to study it.

CURWOOD: Has the dumping stopped?

YABLOKOV: Such scale dumping stopped, of course. But we continue, Russia continue dump some liquid waste. Because we had no possibility to treat this waste properly in the military base.

CURWOOD: So some dumping of lower level waste continues, but no more big reactors?

YABLOKOV: No, no more reactors. As far as I know, the last reactors (unintelligible) had been dumped in Pacific in 1989.

CURWOOD: Now the problems with nuclear materials don't stop there. Recently at the Soviet military facility at Tomsk, there was a fire, chemical explosion, I guess it contaminated about a hundred square kilometers. You've predicted that there'll be more of these types of accidents, that the situation is out of control. Can you explain, please?

YABLOKOV: We have battle. We organized special independent federal agency for nuclear control, but till to now this body, this federal body, have no right to inspect all facility, especially military facility. It's impossible, it's impossible to establish proper control. My prediction, I predict that during this year we will have at least couple of, couple of accident, not like Chernobyl scale but like Tomsk-7 scale.

CURWOOD: The United States is having trouble cleaning up its own nuclear weapons plants, in part because of its costs. How can you afford to do this in the Russian Federation?

YABLOKOV: First of all, we need, we need to, to know the scale of the problem. And after this, we have to decide what the top priority for cleaning operation and so on. By the way, we have special ministry, we called it Chernobyl Ministry, government committee for rehabilitation, Chernobyl rehabilitation territory on the Chernobyl fallout, and other projected pollution territory, is a level of ministry in the government. Each year they spent billion and billion rubles . . .

CURWOOD: For Chernobyl alone?

YABLOKOV: . . . For Chernobyl. We need, on the, on the (unintelligible) several other programs such a scale.

CURWOOD: So it's going to cost a lot of money to clean this up.

YABLOKOV: A lot of money, no, not proper expression. Is an enormous, enormous money. It's look like we need in several years, we need to spend considerable part of our GNP for overcome our ecological problem only connection with radioactive problem. But we have also not only, not only radioactive problem, we have polluted water, we have polluted air, and so on.

CURWOOD: It's quite a long list, in fact - air pollution, you've got massive oil spills, you've got serious sewage problems, there are threats to Lake Baikal - what is the West doing to help the environmental situation, both government and non-government organizations? And what more should the West do?

YABLOKOV: The main direction, as I can see, to help us, is not money. It's your experience. Your experience, your knowledge, your willing to help us - you have to join us, our combat for better life. It give enormous result, and very fast result, if you, if you . . .

CURWOOD: Don't send money, send people?

YABLOKOV: Send people, yes. Send knowledgeable, and enthusiastic people.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much. Dr. Alexei Yablokov is environmental counselor to Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. Thank you, sir.

YABLOKOV: Thank you very much for this interview. I hope it help to establish very, very sound relation in this important field.

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Lithuania's Nuclear Future

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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(Music up and under)

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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