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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reactors Called 'Unsafe'

Moscow's Kurchatov Institute is planning to reopen two "unsafe" nuclear research reactors posing a serious danger to the city, according to the former head of inspection of the State Committee for the Supervision of Nuclear Radiation Safety.


The reactors, with outputs of 40 and eight megawatts are the most powerful in Moscow and have been out of operation since December.


"The reactors were closed because they are too dangerous to keep operational", said Vladimir Kuznetsov, the former head of inspection of Moscow's Gosatomnadzor, the safety committee run under the jurisdiction of President Boris Yeltsin.


"I completely agree with Kuznetsov's arguments", Vladimir Yakovlev, deputy director of the institute said Wednesday. "Yes, we should close down, but presently we simply cannot".


Yakovlev said he could not give a realistic date for a complete shutdown of the reactors, but he estimated that it would be postponed until the year 2000.


Kuznetsov, who resigned under pressure in December, said he ordered the two reactors to be shut, with the intention of closing them down permanently, because they date back to the 1950s and 1960s and have undergone no reconstruction since, posing "a serious danger to the city".


Officials at the Kurchatov Institute, the country's leading atomic energy research center, said the IR-8 will reopen in April and the larger MR-40 would resume normal operations sometime this fall.


Yakovlev explained the reopening, saying, "the research we do is too vital not only for the safety of Russia's reactors but also to the medical world".


According to Yakovlev, hundreds of clinics and hospitals have not been able to carry out regular experiments since the reactor has become inactive.


Lack of funds is also a problem. Kurchatov officials said there were plans to move the institute outside Moscow and to build new reactors, but that cash shortages have delayed work.


"We have wanted to move 100 kilometers outside the city since 1985", said Andrei Gagarinsky, director of external activities for the institute. "Due to economic changes in the country this has been postponed for the time being". A visit to the institute's vast grounds Wednesday left a poor impression of Russia's most prestigious research center.


The dilapidated buildings where the Kurchatov's 10, 000 employees work were in dire need of renovation. Rusting cranes stood over long-abandoned building sites. Discarded rusty pipes, metal containers, and other trash littered the streets and one group of workers was roasting pig's feet with a welder's torch.


The Kurchatov Institute is located in the northwest of Moscow near the Oktyabrskoye Polye metro station. Opened in the 1940s it used to lie outside the city, but in half a century it has been swallowed up by Moscow's urban sprawl. The reactors are as little as 150 meters away from the living quarters of many of the institute's employees. The Geiger counters on every balcony suggest there is cause for concern.


Sergei Morozov, a deputy head of the Gosatomnadzor safety agency said that the two research reactors are indeed outdated and need to be shut down. But he added that the shutdown in December had been temporary, for maintenance checks.


Kuznetsov said he quit his job on Dec. 25, 1992 on "friendly advice" from the head of Gosatomnadzor, Yury Vishnevsky, after several department heads at the agency accused him of closing down reactors where directors did not pay him a bribe.


He said these allegations were untrue and that the actual reason for his dismissal was that he had been too aggressive in closing unsafe plants.


"If I could, I would have closed down practically all nuclear reactors", said Kuznetsov, who worked with Gosatomnadzor from 1987-1992, "but only 10 closedowns were approved". He said he believes that not one nuclear power station in Russia is safe.


Explaining that 85 percent of all reactors under his former jurisdiction were built in the 1950s and 1960s, Kuznetsov, 37, added that it was largely outdated equipment that make the sites potentially dangerous.


Kuznetsov's dismissal coincided with the Dec. 14 ouster of Russia's acting Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, who spoke out publicly against the country's unsafe nuclear power plants.


Both Gaidar and Moscow City Council sent repeated letters urging the Kurchatov institute's reactors to be closed down permanently, Kuznetsov said, adding that they have been ignored by institute officials and his former employer Gosatomnadzor.


Kuznetsov stressed that he was not against nuclear energy, but rather against unsafe reactors.


The Kurchatov Institute has the oldest operating atomic energy unit in the world, the F-l, dating back to 1946.


"The reactor should only be used as a museum or something else of historical value, but it certainly should not stay operational", Kuznetsov said.


Morozov, however, said the F-l is completely harmless, since it does not need a special cooling system and therefore poses no threat. The world's worst disaster at a nuclear power station, at Chernobyl in 1986, occurred after the cooling system was shut down and the reactor core melted.


Half of the 50 facilities in Moscow that use nuclear energy are on the Kurchatov premises, according to Kuznetsov. There are 25 small and large pieces of equipment at the institute which work with atomic energy.


Among them are nine nuclear reactors. The institute does not allow any agency onto its premises for radiation checks, except Gosatomnadzor.


Hans Meyer, public information officer at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna said the agency had no information on the safety of the Kurchatov's reactors.


"Every country is responsible for conducting its own inspection and insuring safety", Meyer said in a telephone interview.


Yakovlev, however said that the institute is visited by hundreds of international delegations and according to him, no one has recommended any reactor shutdowns.


Kuznetsov said that three of the four Kurchatov experts responsible for safety failed a Gosatomnadzor exam on "elementary nuclear safety measures", a claim that was corroborated by clippings from the institute's internal newspaper.


Yakovlev said he did not understand why people had failed, since his experts can "maintain the reactctors blind-folded". But he suggested the employees may have failed because the questions were directed toward nuclear power plants and not research reactors.