Where Is The Next Chernobyl?

Visitors to Sosnovy-Bor, a distant suburb of St. Petersburg, can't say they aren't warned. The town hall boasts a digital Geiger counter, displaying local radiation levels in large red letters. That's because Sosnovy-Bor's only industry is the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant (LNPP), with its four massive reactors. When NEWSWEEK visited the plant early this year, it looked like an abandoned construction site. Rusting cranes loomed like mutant insects over piles of building materials, seemingly abandoned. They are supposed to be used to revamp the plant's safety systems, an overhaul originally scheduled for completion by the end of the year. But that has been postponed until 2001. "If the ruble crisis goes on," says spokesman Karl Rendel, "it seems pretty clear it won't be done even by then." The LNPP is a Chernobyl-type power station--only much more dangerous.

If Chernobyl had happened here, many of the 4 million people of St. Petersburg would have been hit with a massive dose of radiation. Outsiders can enter the plant only with permission from Russia's nuclear-regulatory agency, Minatom, which rarely grants it. (The FSB, successor to the KGB intelligence service, must sign off too.) At the time of NEWSWEEK's visit, only three of the four reactors were in operation--one was due to be shut down permanently because of a 1992 leak of radioactive iodine and inert gases.

Visitors to the LNPP remove their shoes and don plastic booties and protective overclothing, but this seems intended mainly for the amusement of the staff. In the Block 2 Reactor Containment Room, for instance, many employees don't wear any protective gear at all--or even dosimeters, the device that measures radiation. (During a brief visit, a NEWSWEEK photographer's personal monitor pegged off the scale, far above permissible limits.) "When we were kids, we used to go swimming in the effluent [the waste water from the plant cooling systems] because the water was so warm," boasts Viktor Lyubimov, 22, a technician who works in the reactor-core area.

Officials at LNPP are touchy about suggestions that their plant could become another Chernobyl, and say a meltdown can't happen here. "What we call the human factor is really very important," says technical director Viktor Romanov, referring to the importance of worker morale in maintaining good safety practices. "You can't underestimate this. It is what you depend on." Yet plant workers routinely get their government paychecks as much as six months late. And during the past two years, critics of the plant have discovered that at least three LNPP employees were heroin addicts. One of them died of an overdose last winter, the others were sent to rehab. Russian environmentalists claim at least one addict had access to the vital control room of the facility, and others to radioactive-waste-storage facilities. Alex Epichin, deputy chief safety engineer, confirmed the heroin cases, but insisted that "none of them had a critical position."

That's hardly reassuring, especially after Japan's serious accident two weeks ago. There, a country where the manufacturing sector is built on precision and discipline, well-paid workers casually broke every rule in the book--and two of them will probably pay with their lives. By mixing a huge amount of highly enriched uranium in buckets, they set off a "criticality event"--an out-of-control chain reaction that forced authorities to order 300,000 nearby residents indoors. Upgraded last week from a level 4 incident to a level 5 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the world's worst nuclear disaster, the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, rated a 7), the Tokaimura leak was serious. And other nuclear accidents have become dangerously commonplace. Last week Japan reported yet another leak, while South Korea made news with a spill that exposed 22 nuclear workers to low-level radiation. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that there were 508 nuclear "incidents" between 1993 and last October alone, an average of more than one for each of the world's 434 operating nuclear power plants.

Behind the mishaps is a simple fact. Nuclear-power generation is well into its middle age. At plants around the globe, pipes, vats and controls have worn down dangerously, vastly increasing the chances of mishaps, both minor and major. Industry executives insist that nuclear power in Asia, Western Europe and the United States remains safe. But the public is no longer buying it. "Now, many European countries are saying that the risk is unacceptably too high," says Mohamed ElBaradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency's chief. Nuclear-reactor orders and start-ups ranged from 20 to 40 per year in the 1980s; in 1997 there were just two new orders, and five start-ups worldwide. Last year construction began on only four new nuclear reactors, in China, Taiwan and Japan. And output from U.S. nuclear plants has declined dramatically in recent years with tough new regulations. "There's no real future for the nuclear industry,'' says Helen Wallace, a physicist and Greenpeace campaigner in England. ''It's clear nuclear power is on its way out.''

Yet that's easier said than done. Some 16 percent of the world's power now comes from nuclear plants. One third of Europe's electric production is generated by nuclear power. In some countries, the figure is far higher; France gets about three quarters of its power from nukes. That kind of dependence makes it impossible for governments to simply turn off the juice.

But it isn't the state of the plants in France, America or even Japan that keeps nuclear experts awake at night. It's what is going on in the former Soviet Union. Of the 58 Soviet-era reactors still functioning, 15 of them are the RBMK-type reactors, identical in design to Chernobyl. Although the Chernobyl explosion was the result of human error--a decision by plant operators to run a disastrously risky test that had never been tried before--the design of the plant was also a major factor. RBMK reactors, which are graphite-cooled and usually designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium as well as electric energy, have a tendency to get hotter when something goes wrong in the reactor core. Western plants are usually water-cooled, and tend to lose heat during an accident, making them easier to bring under control.

The West is worried enough about these aging plants to have ponied up at least $2 billion so far to improve safety and training. But most experts agree that the only way to really make them safe is to shut them down. The U.S. Department of Energy has compiled a secret list of the world's seven most dangerous plants: all are in the former Soviet bloc. ''Many Soviet-designed reactors... pose significant safety risks because of inherent design deficiencies, deteriorating economies, political turmoil and weak regulatory oversight,'' the agency said in a 1995 report. ''As a class, these reactors continue to experience serious incidents, raising the specter of another accident akin to Chernobyl.''

Or worse. Oleg Bodrov, who runs the Green World environmental group in Sosnovy-Bor, has photos he says were smuggled out of the LNPP by workers. They show cracks 70 feet long and eight inches wide in the thick cement of the building used to store highly radioactive waste products. "In just this one building there's enough hot waste to make 40 Chernobyls. And it's only 20 years old," Bodrov says. "What will it be like in 100 to 200 years?"

People who live near these old plants are already living with the disastrous effects of radiation poisoning. Just ask the residents of Chelyabinsk, in the Ural Mountains of Western Siberia. The region is ringed with nuclear facilities, but the most notorious is the Mayak Production Association, a reprocessing plant located about 50 miles outside of Chelyabinsk, near a town called Novogorny. In 1957, there was a mysterious explosion of the highly toxic radioactive isotope strontium-90 at Mayak, which injured 450 residents and workers; another 28,000 were officially classified as ''affected" by the releases. Since then, there have been half a dozen fatal incidents, including a 1967 explosion of cesium-137, a highly dangerous isotope, that spewed radioactive particles over a large area. "And those are just some of the ones we know about," says Nathalie Mironova of the Movement for Nuclear Safety in Chelyabinsk. She says officials have admitted to accidental releases of radiation three times higher than the amount that escaped from Chernobyl, ''and I think it's probably 10 times higher."

The mayor of Novogorny, Aleksandr Genilo, says his small city still draws its drinking water from Karachai Lake, where the complex dumps its radioactive waste. "There is 15 times the limit of strontium-90 in the soil, 38 times the limit of cesium-137, 10 times the plutonium limit. But the authorities don't believe that when the wind blows, people here all get headaches. They say it's just radiophobia." The day after NEWSWEEK interviewed Mayor Genilo, Russian security police questioned him and other locals about what they had said. Officials at Minatom, meanwhile, denied NEWSWEEK permission to visit Mayak itself.

Russian authorities have plenty to hide. A medical doctor in a village near Mayak, Timirbai Galyulin, says nearly every member of his family has some chronic medical problem; his youngest granddaughter was born with only six fingers. "We don't have concrete statistics to prove it," he says. "But I was born in 1939 and there used to be 50 people in the village my age, and now no more than 10 are left, and most of them are oncological cases." At the Novogorny hospital, the medical director, who would only give his name as Yuri G., says there hasn't been a single normal birth there in two years. "In a population of 10,000, we have 30 or 40 new cases of cancer every year." Dr. G. says he fears retaliation from officials for talking about the problem. A local school director, Tabris Mingazin, says, "We are all victims here." At his school, chronic illnesses are so common that a third of his 230 students are out sick on any given day. Researchers from Mayak came and tested the children's blood, but never divulged the results. Says the mayor: "Novogorny should be evacuated."

Few Western countries would tolerate a Mayak or LNPP in their midst, but their own aging nuclear plants still have plenty of problems of their own. At Britain's Sellafield nuclear-power site, a complex of eight reactors and two reprocessing plants, there were 27 level 1 and 2 incidents in 1998 and 1999--compared with just 32 worldwide in 1997. Three workers there were fired last month for allegedly falsifying safety checks on plutonium. Sellafield is home to the world's first commercial nuclear reactor; opened in 1956 by a then youthful Queen Elizabeth II, the facility was designed to run for 25 years. It's now pushing 43, and still going. Britain, meanwhile, has become the first European country to actually decommission a reactor, the Dounreay plant near Thurso on Scotland's northern coast. The cleanup and shutdown process will take up to 100 years and cost $740 million. Authorities acted after acknowledging that waste-storage units were leaking and after finding mysterious "hot" particles on local beaches earlier this year. The sandlike particles are radioactive enough to blister someone who sat on them, and dangerous enough to kill a child who swallowed them. Officials say they don't know how they escaped the plant.

That's one of the big problems with nuclear energy; there's a lot that even the experts don't know. "There's an almost allergic reaction to radioactivity; it's the fear of the unknown," says the IAEA's ElBaradei. He is a proponent of the industry, but when asked if another Chernobyl could happen, he hedges. "I don't think so. Safety has improved throughout the world. But there are no guarantees. And there's absolutely no reason for complacency. We have to do our best and cross our fin-gers." For the people living near Mayak, Sellafield, Sosnovy-Bor--or anywhere else on earth, really--crossed fingers are hardly enough.