On the Brink of Collapse

Moscow Sovetskaya Rossiya, 19 Apr 97 p 3
[Interview with Kurchatov Institute Director Aleksandr Rumyantsev by Yuriy Nikolayev]

[Nikolayev] As is known, on 12 February 1997 the Russian Federation State Duma adopted a decree on the threat of ecological catastrophe at the Kurchatov Institute Russian Scientific Center and then, for several weeks in a row, newspapers, television, and radio reported the sharply deteriorating situation at the capital's nuclear facilities. At the time these were your words quoted in the press, Aleksandr Yuryevich: "We will last two months on old reserves. But unless the financial problems are solved, reactors could go out of normal operation. Yes, another two months -- that is the maximum."

[Rumyantsev] Well, let us say that the newspapers set out my warning somewhat freely, although I am still prepared to repeat the analogy which I have repeatedly cited. Imagine the situation: An airplane is cruising at 10,000 meters but then the entire starving, weakened crew is ejected. What happens to the airplane and its passengers?... Are we not in a similar position? We have received neither wages -- incidentally, around a miserly 500,000 rubles [R] per person -- since last October, nor funds to maintain production safety. There is only one thing for it -- to hurriedly find parachutes....

[Nikolayev] And could you -- and I mean the center's entire collective -- "bail out?"

[Rumyantsev] Of course not, we are still here to ensure that the reactors never go out of normal operation. It is another question that every day it is getting harder and harder to ensure safety, without any exaggeration the nudge toward ecological catastrophe is becoming increasingly palpable. Any moment now it could become irreversible. It is terrible just thinking about it, but what can you do.... It was no accident that I said two months. Much else could have been rectified. Alas, time has been lost.

[Nikolayev] And?

[Rumyantsev] At the end of March we began, and completed as early as April, command and staff exercises on the theme of "measures to increase the stability of the Kurchatov Institute Russian Scientific Center's hazardous facilities." The results were very alarming. The extraordinary commission which was set up to investigate this question described the situation at the experimental base's facilities, including nuclear reactors, thermonuclear units, charged particle accelerators, and radioactive waste storage facilities, as extremely dangerous. There is a real prospect of a rupture in the waste system, allowing radioactive waste to escape into the Moscow River and the environment, primarily into an area inhabited by 200,000 Muscovites, and to spread further throughout he capital....

[Nikolayev] This is some 15 km from the Kremlin! Surely the country's and capital's leaders appreciate the whole disastrousness of the situation that has developed?

[Rumyantsev] How can they fail to understand? Both B.N. Yeltsin and V.S. Chernomyrdin are apparently showing a great deal of interest in us. Several times the president has demanded in writing that the finance minister clear debts to Russia's nuclear centers and personally that ours be cleared. More than once the head of government has given the ministry the relevant instructions. But last year it was simply not possible to secure the implementation of repeated decisions made at the very top.

[Nikolayev] If I am correctly informed, there is in fact a special federal law "On Financing Especially Radiation-Hazardous and Nuclear-Hazardous Production Facilities and Installations," which envisages a resource allocation procedure. If the law is implemented there is no need for any special intervention by top officials.

[Rumyantsev] That is just the trouble, this very important law is not operating, it is as if it never existed. That is, neither the law's requirements nor the president's and government's instructions have had any real effect. It was arrears of investment -- or, as it used to be called, capital investment -- that in 1996 created the threat of pipeline ruptures resulting in the escape of radioactive waste into the environment.

[Nikolayev] As the saying goes, until the alarm bell sounds....

[Rumyantsev] It is sounding loud and clear but nobody can hear it. Back in June 1996 the main water pipeline system was turned off because it had worn out. We had to switch to the reserve system, whose service life had also expired. Literally a few days ago one more piece of convincing and alarming confirmation of this was obtained. On 14 April there was an accident in the industrial water pipeline. It took over 36 hours to deal with it....

[Nikolayev] Did this affect the radiation and nuclear situation?

[Rumyantsev] It depends on how you look at it. The burst water pipe did not directly threaten nuclear facilities because they are linked to special systems. But it would be disastrous to underestimate the importance of the accident that occurred. At the same time as working very intensively to deal with pipe bursts it was necessary to carry out an emergency shutdown of thermonuclear stands, reactors, the nitrogen liquefaction center.... I hope that there is no need to explain that shutting down a reactor, for instance, is not the same as switching off a table lamp. There is a big difference. Then it still has to be started up again.... Not only corroded pipes but also cables, certain types of electrical equipment, and automated systems whose service life has expired, and nuclear facilities' leaking roofs have become constant sources of radiation and nuclear danger. Unfortunately it has to be stated that emergency situations are now an everyday rather than an extraordinary occurrence. This is fraught with the most serious consequences.

[Nikolayev] The natural question is where and what is the solution? Surely we cannot live eternally with the presentiment of a great irreversible calamity?

[Rumyantsev] What is needed to prevent accidents is the immediate replacement above all of pipelines and the elimination of a possibly uncontrollable leak of radioactive water flows. The total cost of emergency work -- and this is the minimum -- will be around R150 billion. If we do not find this now, tomorrow you will not be able to rectify matters even with many trillions. That is what the leaders of the country and capital must realize.

[Nikolayev] Incidentally, you are bombarding not only the federal authorities but also Moscow City authorities with your most alarming distress signals. How are they reacting to them?

[Rumyantsev] Yuriy Mikhaylovich Luzhkov [Moscow Mayor] is energetically supporting our urgent demands and is himself, I know, approaching the government requesting that it finds the scope to allocate at least the minimum necessary resources. Even though he is very preoccupied with preparations for Moscow's 850th anniversary....

[Nikolayev] It seems you don't want to offend the mayor? But, forgive me for being blunt, if he is going to confine himself merely to the role of intercessor in relation to your needs, the capital's jubilee could be in very great jeopardy. This unpleasant thought came to me following conversations with your staff. Surely people will not understand how day and night vast resources can be splashed out on creating a paradise for street vendors in Manezh Square and on decorating workplaces in the most precious marble, when the Kurchatov Institute -- one of the world's biggest nuclear centers, with its unique scientific and experimental base -- is in such dire straits?

[Rumyantsev] I do not think that money from the state budget is going on Manezh Square's reconstruction....

[Nikolayev] But if money from the city budget is, does this make the whole venture any more moral?

[Rumyantsev] In all the world's countries nuclear centers are under the strictest government control, and their functioning and security are also ensured primarily by state resources. Luzhkov, for instance, has more resources than the heads of administrations of Chelyabinsk-70 or Sarov City near Arzamas. The problem must be tackled as a whole at federal level. Because the situation is similar at Sarov, Chelyabinsk, and other nuclear centers. We must prevent another Chernobyl or "Kyshtym cover-ups" [Kyshtym -- scene of massive nuclear explosion in 1957]. And I believe we will!

[Nikolayev] How come you are so optimistic after all that you and I have talked about?

[Rumyantsev] Some moves toward improving matters have emerged, one cannot fail to see this. For example, our budget has cleared wage arrears for October, November, and December last year and January this year. We should invest in reconstruction and get away from lurching from one emergency to another. Let us hope that the courageous death of Chelyabinsk-70 Director Nechay, the State Duma's strict decision on our center, and the powerful pressure on the authorities, who will determine the solution to the problem, do not go unanswered by the mass media. Even the hardest bureaucratic hearts will eventually be moved by the rising tide of accidents at the major nuclear base. But our main hope is the Kurchatov's renowned collective. Even in these very difficult conditions our center has retained its scientific and production potential. We have over 1,000 doctors and candidates of science alone. The most important areas of activity are headed by nearly 15 members of the Russian Academy of Sciences. We have very experienced engineers and general staff. We also have carefully tested plans to develop the unique complex and to ensure that it functions completely safely. People are prepared to put in a lot of hard work. The important thing is that the state should meet us halfway. And we must not cross the line which now separates us from irreversible processes.