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Western governments are on the brink of spending billions of dollars to prevent a nuclear-reactor accident in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. The aim is worthy, but the money may not be wisely spent, and much of it may end up in the pockets of Western reactor manufacturers. Better, cheaper solutions are available.

A reactor rescue plan has been drawn up for presentation to the seven major industrial democracies at their annual summit meeting in Munich, Germany, in July. Its price tag will be at least $10 billion and perhaps much more. It will involve refitting some reactors with modern safety devices and shutting down others, with provision for alternative electricity sources to replace the lost generating capacity. Funds will come from government grants and loans from government-backed banks and, therefore, ultimately from Western taxpayers.Reactor manufacturers have actively promoted the plan, and their influence is skewing its content toward their particular interests, which are not identical with those of Western taxpayers or Eastern countries. Their interests coincide in preventing an accident, which could harm Eastern and Western citizens directly and harm reactor manufacturers indirectly by further reducing public support for nuclear power.

However, public interest dictates that the problem be solved less expensively and to the betterment of economic development in Eastern countries. The reactor vendors, by contrast, want orders for themselves, either for nuclear technology or for other electricity-generating equipment, which is often made by affiliated businesses.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, as currently constituted, cannot be trusted to provide a balanced plan. Its mandate includes both promoting nuclear energy and serving as a watchdog over nuclear safety and non-proliferation controls.

A cost-effective plan will, above all, emphasize using indigenous capabilities and resources. The Eastern countries have suffered from decades of economic mismanagement, but they have thousands of skilled engineers and an extensive industrial infrastructure. A partnership with Western businesses and governments would allow those capabilities to be applied to the reactor problem.

Next, a good plan will maximize the efficiency with which energy resources are used. The former communist economies are notorious for their energy inefficiency, but that cloud contains a silver lining. Correcting present inefficiencies could free up enough electricity to allow the most dangerous reactors to be shut down. Western expertise and technology are needed to realize this potential, but in partnership with local enterprises.

A good plan will also help Eastern factories convert from military to domestic production. Russia is strong in military jet engines, a capability that could be quickly turned to producing gas turbine power plants that could substitute for unsafe reactors. If that potential is not harnessed, the factories will actively seek military sales, to the detriment of Western security.

A plan with these features would deserve strong support from Western governments and taxpayers. Indications are, however, that the present plan is unsatisfactory. If implemented, it will benefit a narrow sector of Western business but will not exploit all the opportunities available in the East.

(Gordon Thompson is executive director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Mass.)