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Power grid failure shuts Russian nuclear plants
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A failure in its crumbling electric grid forced Russia to shut down several nuclear reactors over the weekend, including those at a gargantuan top-secret fuel reprocessing plant, officials said Monday.
Officials assured the public there was no danger, but the head of the huge, secret Mayak reprocessing plant, in the remote Ural mountains, said only his staff's ``near-military'' vigilance, had prevented serious trouble.
The incident follows a catastrophic accident on a nuclear submarine last month that killed all 118 crew and a fire that gutted Moscow's television tower, and draws further attention to the dangerously decrepit state of Russian infrastructure.
``Everything is fine,'' an employee in the press office of the Atomic Energy Ministry said, adding that there was no danger.
Reactors at Mayak were shut down Saturday after the power grid failure cut off the plant's outside electricity supply for 45 minutes, its director Vitaly Sadovnikov told Itar-Tass news agency. He said no dangerous materials had been emitted.
Workers were restarting the first of the reactors Monday. Reports did not say how many reactors had been affected in all.
A reactor at the Beloyarsk civilian nuclear power plant in nearby Sverdlovsk province was also shut down, provincial power company Sverdlovenergo said in a statement received by Reuters. It also reported no leaks of radiation.
Sverdlovenergo said the power cuts were probably caused by a short circuit on a high voltage line in its grid, but that an investigation was underway.
QUESTIONS ABOUT NUCLEAR SAFETY
The shutdowns, especially those at the Mayak plant, go to the heart of questions about nuclear safety in Russia. Mayak -- in Ozyorsk, a closed town of 86,000 people surrounded by a double wire fence -- is the biggest nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the world, handling radioactive material from all across Russia.
It was here that the plutonium for the first Soviet nuclear bomb was produced in 1949. The town's very existence was once a secret.
It is now also the site of a cavernous depot, being built with U.S. help, to keep 6,000 bombs' worth of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium from falling into the wrong hands.
``We were saved from major trouble by the near-military discipline which we still retain at the plant,'' Sadovnikov told Tass. ``The staff responded well, demonstrating the knowledge of their equipment and not permitting any harmful emissions.''
The U.S. embassy said it could not immediately comment on whether American projects at Mayak were affected. Tass quoted the head of the Beloyarsk civilian power plant as saying workers were also attempting to restart their reactor.
``None of the station's employees can remember such sharp fluctuations in the power and frequency of the charge in the Sverdlovenergo grid,'' Oleg Sarayev said.
``Thanks to the precise safety system of the nuclear power station and the flawless discipline of its workers, the block was shut down according to procedure.''
Two non-nuclear power plants in the region were shut down as well, Sverlovenergo's statement said.
-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), September 11, 2000