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STEAMY REACTOR IN LITHUANIA RAISES CLOUD OF FEAR

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Steam curls up from thick metal blocks covering 1,600 radioactive fuel rods in one of the world's most suspect nuclear reactors.

The director of the Ignalina power plant, Viktor Shevaldin, says not to worry. "It is clean, clean as sauna steam," he adds with a laugh.A Swedish expert on Ignalina, Jan Nistad, says in a later interview that steam should not be leaking, the metal blocks are supposed to act as plugs.

Western experts have a lot of concerns about operations at Ignalina. Mishaps have been regular. The reactors have been forced to shut down three times in the past year alone.

But making both of the reactors as safe as those at Western nuclear plants would cost about $100 million, money the former Soviet republic does not have.

Ignalina needs a lot of work, although it "is better than its reputation," said Nistad, who was allowed to tour the plant with other Swedish experts following Lithuania's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Until recently, journalists were barred from the plant, in the northeastern corner of Lithuania. It houses the world's two most powerful graphite-cooled reactors. They are of the same type as the one that blew up in 1986 at Chernobyl, Ukraine, but the Ignalina reactors belong to a later generation.

Opening Ignalina's doors to foreign journalists accompanying Foreign Minister Margaretha af Ugglas of Sweden, the plant's director said he was not worried about safety and others should not worry either.

The vistors were rushed down long green and blue corridors, where the floor is covered with plastic. "To make cleaning easier," Shevaldin said.

That type of plastic would melt and give off toxic fumes in a fire and should be removed, Nistad said later when the tour was described to him.

When Ignalina was built in 1980, it was designed to supply energy not only for Lithuania, but to Estonia, Latvia, Belarus and the Kaliningrad district of Russia.

Today, it is operating at minimal capacity because customers in Belarus and Russia are unwilling to pay for Ignalina's electricity when their own governments are subsidizing energy costs at artificially low rates.