Friday, October 08, 2004
Could Another Chernobyl Happen in St. Petersburg? 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
One would think a region that suffers devastating harm to this day from the world's worst nuclear accident would think twice before considering reactivation of an aging power plant with the identical, faulty RBMK [reaktor bolshoy moshchnosty kanalny] design. But - never say "never again," especially when it comes to nations with severe winters, struggling economies and heavy dependence on nuclear energy. From the St. Petersburg Times, disturbing news about an aging RBMK-1000 type reactor being renovated for reactivation:
Report Says Renovation of Chernobyl-Type Reactor Rushed
By Vladimir Kovalev, STAFF WRITER

A series of mishaps has occurred during the renovation of reactor No.1 at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, or LAES, in Sosnovy Bor outside St. Petersburg because basic safety regulations were ignored, according to a new report. Reactor No. 1 is the oldest of four reactors at the plant and its official working life has expired, but the Federal Nuclear Power Agency is seeking to extend it. It is an RBMK-1000 reactor, the same type that caused the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and LAES management plan to restart it this fall.

Sergei Kharitonov, a former employee of the plant and now an environmental campaigner, wrote in the report that the safety systems for the reactors were installed in a rush, in some cases by unqualified workers, breaching standards on how the work should be done, the report said. As a result, two workers died in the spring, including a 32-year-old construction worker who fell from the wall of bloc No.1 in April and a 42-year-old fitter was crushed while working on bloc No.2 in May.

"[The management] paid most of its attention to [staff] training for the launch of bloc No.1," Kharitonov quoted LAES management as saying in a statement on July 16. "The lectures were poorly attended ... Two lectures remain to be conducted. Such a situation is unacceptable, when the bloc [No.1] is about to launched, but employees are not ready for it."

In an article "The Most Effective Will Survive" in an official LAES document in December 2002, the plant management urged employees to work faster by writing "earn more and get more benefits." The document gave the example of the Kaliningrad Nuclear Power Plant, which raised its energy output and wages were raised shortly afterward using the proceeds from selling electricity.

The fire service at LAES is also in a worrying condition, according to Mayak, the weekly Sosnovy Bor newspaper, which in November last year reported that "the 72 firefighters providing safety at the nuclear plant commit from 1,700 to 1,800 violations annually," according to Kharitonov's report. "How does he know what's going on at the plant if he hasn't been working there for such a long time?" LAES' Averyanov said. "If he is citing materials from [LAES's official documents] that discuss all the spectrum of internal problems of the LAES staff, it would be wrong to make judgments based on such articles," he said.

Kharitonov said encouraging renovations to be done quickly could in the long run lead to dangerous developments comparable in their scale to the Chernobyl disaster. "An ongoing and dangerous experiment is being carried out at LAES," Kharitonov said. "They are always working in a rush. There is always some sort of defect that is being fixed on the way."

Important parts of the new equipment to maintain the safety of bloc No.1 are being stolen, including the switches on a security system that can in emergency bring the reactor to a halt. "Even crucial things like that are fixed in a rush," Kharitonov said.
How does something like this happen? It's probably part cost-cutting beancounters, part dismal economy - with a healthy dose of good old-fashioned East European fatalism. More at RadioActive! The Nuclear Blog.