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N-SAFETY IN EX-USSR WORRIES NRC CHAIRMAN

Reports of plutonium being smuggled out of the former Soviet republics should be a "wake-up call" about safety problems in the Russian and Ukraine nuclear programs, says the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

NRC Chairman Ivan Selin, in a wide-ranging discussion of domestic and international nuclear issues, expressed broad concern Thursday about nuclear safety in the former Soviet Union, both in the operation of civilian reactors and in securing plutonium stockpiles.In Russia, there is an intense struggle "between those who genuinely want to control nuclear material and safety . . . and those determined to create a plutonium economy," Selin said in a meeting with reporters.

At the same time, he continued, the Russian agency that is supposed to regulate civilian nuclear power plants "has not been given the resources, the clout nor the laws" to ensure that nuclear reactors are operated safely.

Selin's concerns mirrors those of senior Clinton administration officials as well as leaders in Europe over the lack of safeguards in the nuclear programs in Russia and Ukraine.

The anxiety among U.S. and European nuclear experts include fear about the lack of security affecting weapons-grade plutonium and uranium stockpiles as well as poorly designed civilian reactors such as those at Chernobyl in Ukraine.

"Unless virtually airtight control is imposed on weapons grade fissile material in the former Soviet Union today, tomorrow rogue states or terrorists could threaten any of us," said Selin.

He called the Chernobyl reactors "the single most dangerous reactor site in the world," because of the poor design of the reactors and the lack of money to operate them safely.

Describing a list of "horrors" at Chernobyl, Selin said reactor operators sometimes are not paid for months at a time and unsafe reactor fuel is being taken from the destroyed reactor and being used in operating reactors.

Last July the seven largest industrial nations, meeting at an economic summit, committed $200 million to help develop a plan for permanently shutting down the remaining Chernobyl facility. The nations' leaders called the closing of the reactors an urgent priority.

But Ukraine officials have been reluctant to shut down the facility until alternative energy sources can be developed. Chernobyl was the site of the world's worst nuclear accident when one of the reactors was destroyed in 1986, spewing radiation over a wide area.

On another matter, Selin said the NRC plans to give closer scrutiny to the increased competitiveness in the U.S. electric utility industry.