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Environmentalists Warn of Possible Nuclear Catastrophes

August 31, 1995

MOSCOW (AP) _ The potential nuclear disaster that lurks in Russia is especially threatening in Moscow, where scores of reactors are not receiving adequate upkeep and are tended by poorly trained workers, environmental experts warned Thursday.

The experts told a news conference that severe nuclear accidents are possible at deteriorating facilities throughout the country. The main danger, they said, is from the country’s 160 research reactors, 53 of which are in Moscow.

``No one makes any effort to modernize the aging equipment,″ said Vladimir Kuznetsov, head of the Russian Nuclear Emergency Prevention Center. Many of the research reactors are more than 40 years old.

``We also have a nuclear waste storage facility in Moscow with a capacity equaling the amount of radioactivity released in Chernobyl,″ he said.

In April 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine exploded in the world’s worst nuclear disaster, spewing a radioactive cloud across Europe.

Kuznetsov, who headed the Moscow branch of the government’s nuclear watchdog agency, was fired last year after he accused industry officials of neglecting safety standards.

Among other problems, Kuznetsov said, authorities recently decided to reopen an airport less than a mile from Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute, the country’s leading nuclear research center, which has several reactors.

``These facilities weren’t built to withstand an aircraft falling on them,″ Kuznetsov said. ``That plan is fraught with new disasters.″

Of the 29 operating reactors at power plants, 11 are the same type as the one that exploded in Chernobyl. Efforts to modernize them have faltered and workers of 10 lack the training to operate the facilities safely, said Robert Tilles, chairman of the International Chernobyl Fund for Nuclear Safety, another non-government group.

Another serious problem is lack of capacity to store used nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste. The situation is especially alarming in the European part of Russia, where the waste storage facilities of three nuclear plants are filled almost to capacity.

``At the Kursk and Leningrad plants, waste storage is filled to 95-96 percent,″ said Kuznetsov. ``In violation of the basic safety regulations, these plants don’t even have a place to unload fuel from their reactors in case of emergency.″

Vladislav Petrov, a spokesman for the Nuclear Power Ministry, denounced the environmentalists’ claims as incompetent and unfounded.

``Don’t try to scare us with new Chernobyls,″ he lashed out at the critics.

Alexei Yablokov, who heads the ecological safety commission of President Boris Yeltsin’s Security Council, said the Russian nuclear establishment has grown increasingly secretive and aggressive, hatching plans to resume nuclear tests as well as underground nuclear explosions for industrial purposes.

Nuclear officials have even devised a concept of using underground nuclear blasts to dispose of the vast stockpiles of chemical weapons Russia has to destroy under international agreements, experts said.

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