Nuclear threat off northeastern border

  • 2000-12-07
  • Sergei Stepanov
Just 100 km from the northeastern border of Estonia there's a delayed-action bomb: a Russian nuclear power plant in poor condition. Should Estonia and its neighbors really panic because of this fact? Sergei Stepanov does some investigative reporting.

Over a year ago, everybody anticipating the solar eclipse was blabbering about the last days of planet Earth. People invented all kinds of ways in which the world would collapse, including stones falling from the sky and World War III. The media predicted how Hea-ven would finish human existence in a blink. But joking apart, if the apocalypse does happen it'll be something local and unexpected. The closeness of nuclear facilities makes the odds even greater.

The Estonian government has recently been discussing the concept of national safety. Minister of Foreign Affairs Toomas Hendrik Ilves has said there's a real non-military threat to Estonia in the from of the Leningrad nuclear power plant.

Oleg Bodrov, the head of a group of Russian environmentalists who visited Narva this summer, assessed the situation in detail.

The Leningrad nuclear power plant, located in the town of Sosnovy Bor, is the largest and oldest nuclear power plant in the Baltic region. The plant has four RBMK-1000 type nuclear reactors. In 2003, the oldest one will exhaust its projected life and have to be shut down. The storage of spent nuclear fuel is already overfilled by 100 percent, and the last renovation of the facility was conducted by its own personnel, without the required supervision of state experts.

Authorities have often stressed that nuclear power is not only cheap but also safe. The Chernobyl tragedy was just a mistake made by the plant operators, and it couldn't happen again. So, the safety of nuclear energy was the first topic Bodrov commented on:

"To tell the truth, the Leningrad plant is the largest, the oldest and the most dangerous nuclear power plant in the Baltic basin. The risk of a fatal accident is high, but it's the radioactive waste products and spent nuclear fuel that pose an even bigger threat. Leaky storage buildings situated 90 meters from the Gulf of Finland contain radioactive waste equal to 50 Chernobyl catastrophes. Today we have no technology available that would allow the recycling of waste.

"To draw public attention to the poor conditions at the power plant, we published some stories with photos in the English-language media in 1996. That worked, and the storage buildings were partly renovated.

"The power plant is still a bomb laid under the whole Baltic region," Bodrov said.

"The Russian government is strong influenced by Russian nuclear power lobby and thus has decided to keep the Leningrad plant in operation for another 10 or 15 years. This may harm not only Russia but all the Baltic states as well. There's no plan yet for shutting down the plant after all these years have gone by.

"The station is 30 years old, and it'd be a good idea to shut it down right now," he stressed.

"There have been two serious accidents at the nuclear power plant over those 30 years, and the first of them happened 10 years before Chernobyl at the end of 1975. At that time some 1 million to 1.5 million curies were emitted into the atmosphere [at Chernobyl 80 million curies were emitted]. The accident was kept secret, and none of the local residents or neighboring countries were informed. That was why there was no detailed and adequate study of the accident. The second accident happened in 1992 and was caused by the negligence of renovation workers. It was rather a minor one," he said.

Bodrov displayed photos of the Leningrad nuclear power plant's waste storage facilities. Cracked walls and water on the floors make the working storage facilities look like a dilapidated house.

The power plant recently received $70 million as financial support from Western countries, but the situation is not likely to improve.

Additionally, warm water used to cool the reactor is still being spilled into the gulf, and chemical plants in the St. Petersburg region regularly dump chemical waste into the gulf, which by interacting with the warmer than usual water could, according to some biologists, give birth to pike-perch of Atlantic-shark size in the Gulf of Finland.