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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Accidents Increase at Nuclear Plants

Russian nuclear power plants have suffered more serious accidents this year due to low wages and bad working conditions that have caused weak discipline among staff, nuclear energy authorities said Wednesday.

"If workers at nuclear plants were paid according to their professional level, it would mean a drop by 50 percent in accidents", said Ivan Yegorov, an aide to the chairman of Gosatomnadzor, the state atomic inspection body.

Valery Bogdan, advisor to Minister for Nuclear Energy Viktor Mikhailov, said Wednesday that government funds allocated to the ministry have so far not been disbursed, resulting in poor conditions at the country's outdated plants.

"The discipline at the plants is becoming weaker and this can be directly linked to the financial situation in our country", he said. "The wages of the employees are not sufficient, so the workers are stressed and the quality of their work suffers".

"Unfortunately", Bogdan added, "the situation will not improve soon. Maybe in five years time".

According to officials at the ministry, there were 79 safety violations registered in the first half of 1992, none of them serious. There were 66 incidents recorded in the first half of this year, two of them serious.

Bogdan said that although the amount of violations at nuclear plants has decreased, the gravity of accidents at plants and military production and reprocessing facilities has become worse.

Accidents are usually considered serious when they rate three on the international scale for judging nuclear accidents. Both of the two serious accidents at nuclear plants took place at the Kola plant located in the far north, near Murmansk.

David Kyd, a spokesman at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said that poor design, unsatisfactory maintenance and unmotivated personnel were the three main reasons for the bad state of safety standards of Russia's reactors.

"The general pay and working conditions at Russia's plants are very modest", he said in a telephone interview. "There are many plans to improve conditions and phase out old, unsafe reactors, but the big problem is a lack of money".

Kyd added that so far no agreement had been reached by the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations to allocate $700 million to help Russia modernize its plants, although it has been on the agenda since last year's Munich Summit.

The two most serious accidents this year both took place at secret military installations - which Gosatomnadzor does not include in its figures. Both were at plutonium reprocessing plants in Siberia.

In April, an explosion at a site in the central Siberian town of Tomsk-7 blew a reinforced lid off a container holding uranium and plutonium. According to experts, more than 120 square kilometers of Siberian taiga was contaminated. The explosion rated three on the seven-point scale and was said to be the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster which sent radioactive clouds over most of Europe.

On July 17, 20 liters of radioactive plutonium leaked from a ventilation shaft in a factory in Chelyabinsk-65. In a lesser accident last Monday, radioactive waste leaked from a pipe in the Chelyabinsk-40 plant.

After the explosion in Tomsk-7 in April, Yeltsin ordered by decree that safety measures be improved. But according to Svyatoslav Zabelin, a consultant to Alexei Yablokov, who is President Boris Yeltsin's advisor on ecological issues, little has been done.

Zabelin said that safety was "very poor" at Russian plants and that 70 percent of accidents were directly linked to human errors.

Soviet-designed reactors rely more on human watchfulness than nuclear plants in the West because they have fewer computerized, automatic safety systems.

But Georgy Kaurov, a spokesman at the Ministry of Atomic Energy said that although installing more computers would help the situation, it could not resolve the safety problem at Russia's plants.

"Computers make mistakes too", Kaurov said. "They are disadvantageous because if something goes wrong, they shut down. Humans however can work under almost all circumstances".