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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Watchdog Counts 20,000 Nuclear Violations

Nuclear power in Russia poses a growing danger to human safety because of radiation leaks, thefts of uranium, ignorance of security regulations and shortages of funds to bury hazardous wastes, a government watchdog agency has reported.

In its first annual survey as an independent body with enhanced powers published Tuesday, the Federal Nuclear and Radiation Safety Oversight Committee counted 20,000 safety violations in 1993 -- nearly four for each of the 5,500 inspections it made.

As a result, the agency said it shut down temporarily 78 of the 14,500 enterprises involved in atomic power, reprimanded 232 officials and charged two others with crimes. It also gave quizzes on safety procedures to 5,000 atomic energy workers and flunked 437.

"There are serious drawbacks in the way we approach the problem of physical safety of nuclear materials in this country," Yury Vishnevsky, chairman of the watchdog agency, told a news conference.

The agency's report painted a worrisome picture of what through last year was one of Russia's few growth industries. Nuclear power supplies 11 percent of the country's electricity and up to 80 percent in some regions.

But none of the country's 29 nuclear reactors has all the right equipment for preparing radioactive waste for burial, the report said.

Russia needs $72 million this year to bury the waste or expand its storage facilities and carry out other urgent maintenance, Vishnevsky said. But with government agencies scrambling for a share of the 1994 budget, he is not optimistic. The industry got no money for safety improvements last year, he said.

The inter-company debts that paralyze much of Russia's economy pose a more immediate problem. The nuclear power industry is owed $210 million by its clients: Unless the government helps it collect, Vishnevsky said, reactors at St. Petersburg, Kursk and Smolensk could run out of fuel within months and shut down.

Obscure and weak under Soviet rule, the oversight committee was empowered last year by President Boris Yeltsin to inspect all civilian and military handlers of nuclear materials, enforce safety regulations and blow the whistle on violators.

But Vishnevsky said the agency is hindered by the lack of a modern legal code to regulate the industry, parts of which are coming under private ownership, and by resistance from the Defense Ministry to outside inspection of its bases.

Under Yetlsin's new regulations, the agency can order an enterprise shut down -- a drastic measure that it uses sparingly. But legislation allows sets the maximum fine at 100 rubles, about 6 cents at today's exchange rate.

A legal reform permitting stiff fines was delayed when Yeltsin disbanded that body in September, and is now awaiting action by the new legislature.

Without serious penalties, law enforcement officials say they cannot stop thefts of uranium by poorly paid workers for sale abroad as reactor fuel or bomb-making material.

The Nuclear Power Ministry reported three such thefts last year. But the watchdog agency recorded 10 thefts totaling about 350 kilograms of spent uranium fuel plus "several dozens" of kilograms of more dangerous enriched uranium fuel rods.