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Russians Narrowly Avert 2 Nuclear Breakdowns

Source: Dayton Daily News

Publication date: 2000-09-25

Arrival time: 2000-09-26

MOSCOW - A nuclear catastrophe triggered by a fault in Russia's aging electrical grid was averted last week thanks to a "heroic" emergency operation by power station workers.

Details of how one of Russia's main nuclear plants and the country's largest plutonium-processing center came close to disaster emerged slowly, prompting new alarm in a country still reeling from a string of disasters.

Nuclear experts said "courageous" workers at the Beloyarsk power station and the Mayak reprocessing plant had managed to prevent a Chernobyl-style accident.

Environmental campaigners warned that the crumbling state of Russia's infrastructure meant such close escapes could be expected with growing frequency.

Preliminary investigations showed that a short circuit in the regional electricity system caused a sudden blackout in three nuclear reactors in the Urals. Its cause remains unclear, although it has been widely attributed to a fault in the poorly maintained network.

Unexpected power cuts at nuclear plants, which are designed to work ceaselessly, pose a severe risk.

There was controversy Saturday over whether built-in emergency electricity systems took over as they should have.

Minatom, Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, insisted that all backup systems at both sites began working seconds after the accident, but environmental activists reported that the standby electricity generators of at least one of the reactors had failed to start.

These sources say a technical hitch at the Beloyarsk plant, in the Sverdlovsk region, meant that the diesel generators built into the reactor failed to start automatically. Without a separate supply of electricity, the cooling system at the heart of the plant allegedly stopped working - causing the temperature in the core reactor to soar to dangerous levels, as workers lost control over the chain reactions inside.

"The problem was that the diesel generators were in poor condition and so the staff on the plant needed 36 minutes to repair them to get them started," said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the Ecodefense organization, which is gathering information about the mishap. "It was up to the personnel on the plant to avert a serious nuclear accident. They worked heroically."

Alexei Yablokov of the Center for Ecological Problems of Russia endorsed this view: "We were just half an hour from another Chernobyl, had it not been for the professionalism of the plant staff."

One of the immediate results of the shutdown at Beloyarsk was a power failure at the nearby Mayak processing plant in the Chelyabinsk region, where two reactors were in operation.

The potential consequences of malfunction at the vast, high- security Mayak plant are no less alarming. Scientists there take spent nuclear fuel from all over the former Soviet Union and convert it into weapons-grade plutonium and high-level waste. The site is estimated to contain 120 million curies of radioactive waste.

Publication date: 2000-09-25 ) 2000, YellowBrix, Inc.

-- Carl Jenkins (, September 30, 2000

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