The German government has informed Soviet officials it will shut down five Soviet-built nuclear power reactors in former East German territory by mid-December because they are unsafe and the cost of adapting them is prohibitive. Officials at the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency said the German decision would increase pressure to close at least 26 similar reactors scattered across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
New understanding of the reactors' hazards has deeply worried specialists, who argue that any accident would not only harm the population but jeopardize the climate for all of nuclear energy.
"Those machines are very far off our own regulations and requirements," said a safety expert at the Nuclear Energy Agency, an agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "Not marginally off, but incredibly far off."
Germany has ordered the hasty construction of a $30-million oil-fired power plant to replace some of the energy produced by the five nuclear reactors. Other parts of eastern Germany are to be supplied from the west's power grid.
But it is considered unlikely the Soviets will take similar steps. A spokeswoman for German Environment Minister Klaus Topfer said that when Topfer went to Moscow last week to announce the German decision, Soviet officials said "they are not able to modernize any of their plants _ there's no money _ and they said they cannot afford to close any because they need their energy."
Soviet nuclear physicists are reported to have told their Western colleagues recently that energy shortages may even force them to reopen some old, deactivated nuclear plants.
But the problem is equally vexing for Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria, which have the suspect Soviet nuclear plant models on their soil.
Energy specialists said that in all three countries, nuclear physicists and politicians have been debating the risks.
Officials in all three countries say they face impossible energy choices _ they have cheap coal, but it is highly polluting, the cost of imported oil was burdensome even before the tensions in the Persian Gulf drove up prices, and now they are told their nuclear reactors pose enormous risks.
At issue are plants with pressurized water reactors, the technology which is widely used in the West. No country outside the Soviet Union has the so-called graphite reactors, the type that caused the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl.
The reactors that have caused the most concern are known as VVER model 230. The 440-megawatt reactors were designed in the 1960s and built during the 1970s. One of the reactors came close to meltdown during a fire in 1975.