by Larisa SayenkoKHOINIKI, Belarus - Nikolai Voronitsky is no ordinary forest ranger.
His brief covers a nature reserve extending through the 30 km (18 miles) exclusion zone round the Chernobyl nuclear power station, evacuated after the world's worst civil nuclear accident in 1986 just over the border in Ukraine.
Voronitsky's first love is for the 150 wolves that roam free throughout the 215 sq km (85 sq mile) reserve, although he understands they have to be culled for their own good and for that of the other wildlife and livestock in the area.
"I've been here 10 years since the reserve was created and I still can't get over the wolves," Voronitsky said outside his home near a small lake just beyond the zone.
"Whenever we have to cull a wolf, they always turn up to avenge their own. And they always end up killing a dog or horse.
DESOLATION ALLOWS WILDLIFE TO FLOURISH
The exclusion zone, cleared in chaotic fashion in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, is supposed to be off-limits to people because of persistent high radiation likely to remain for centuries.
Belarus bore the brunt of the nuclear fallout when the reactor blew up but radiation spread across large areas of Europe.
In the desperation of post-Soviet upheavals, some refugees and people forced from their homes live illegally in the zone. The relative desolation has enabled wildlife to flourish unmolested by human predators.
Experts say the wolf population is at least 10 times higher than ecological norms. The wolves kill an estimated 230 sheep each year in addition to moose and deer.
Collective farmers outside the exclusion zone even offer livestock as a bounty for a wolf pelt.
Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko visited the area recently and signed an order authorising the cull, put off for four years because of a lack of proper equipment or fuel.
Voronitsky's passion for wolves extends to his wife and twin four-year-old sons.
Two years ago he brought home a wolf cub, Voy (Howl), who lives alongside the family dog in a small enclosure. The pair share meals and vie for the attention of his young sons, leaping about with them in the yard.
"He loves children and doesn't seem to understand that he is a wolf," Voronitsky said. "He frequently under-estimates his own strength."
The latest addition to the family is a two-month-old female cub which he hopes can join the others in the enclosure once she becomes used to her new surroundings.
RADIOACTIVITY REMAINS A PROBLEM
Radioactivity remains a problem for wildlife throughout the region, with the highest readings recorded in wild boars, which tend to dig up earth in search of food and frequently raid potato patches on nearby farms.
But studies show the staple of dietary items in both Belarus and Ukraine - pork fat, known locally as "salo" - is largely unaffected by radiation.
Voronitsky, 39, dismisses with a wave of the hand any suggestion that the exclusion zone is teeming with untold variations of animal "mutations" born of high radioactivity.
"This is the stuff of fairy tales. Even if there were such things as metre-long frogs and moose with two heads, they wouldn't last two minutes with the wolves around," he said. "Only the toughest can survive with a wolf population this size."
Voronitsky says the only problem he has encountered with Voy is that it has so far proved incapable of barking in either wolf or dog-like fashion.
His hope is that one day, wolves can be raised somewhere inside the reserve with the idea of selling them to foreign zoos.
"Many reserves and zoos want wolves. You can kill them in the wild, but it's impossible to take an adult wolf and tame it. Maybe we can raise a new generation of wolves," he said.
"Wolves are clever hunters, they're sensitive and have good memories. A lot like us, really."
BRUSSELS - Six East European environmental groups said on Wednesday European Union aid to former Soviet bloc states seeking to join the EU should be conditional on the closure by 2000 of their high-risk nuclear reactors.
"Pre-accession funds should be conditional on concrete closure dates," the groups - from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania and Slovakia - said in a report called "Real ways to reduce nuclear risk in Eastern Europe."
"(EU) accession offers a unique chance to close reactors which threaten citizens across Europe. Unless this opportunity is seized and a clear closure strategy adopted, the consequences could be catastrophic," Linas Vainius from Friends of the Earth Lithuania said in a statement accompanying the report.
"If left to their own devices, the governments of the region will likely do nothing to close these reactors. On the contrary they will operate them to their limit and beyond, regardless of the risk," Vainius continued.
The groups said since 1989 the EU had made available 700 million Ecus ($840 million) for the closure of dangerous nuclear plants. But so far none of these reactors, with the exception of one unit at Chernobyl, had been "voluntarily and permanently" decommissioned in the last decade.
They also accused the EU's executive Commission, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the World Bank of failing to target sufficient loans towards the creation of alternative energy sources in the East - essential for the closure of their reactors.
If the Easterners were allowed to maintain sub-standard nuclear facilities after joining the EU, they would be able to export "dirty" electricity throughout the bloc, thus distorting the market, the groups continued.
European Commission spokeswoman Lousewise Van Der Laan insisted respect for "internationally agreed nuclear safety standards" was a key condition for membership of the 15-nation EU. "It is clear the EU member states and the European Parliament would probably never ratify (EU membership for) a country that's got a Chernobyl type reactor," she told Reuters.
But Van Der Laan acknowledged it was extremely difficult for the Commission to force the Eastern hopefuls to speed up reactor closures, pointing out that it was up to the countries concerned to determine their national energy policies.
"It's expensive, it's politically sensitive and sometimes the (Eastern) governments are in a difficult situation because (domestic) nuclear power is very much a symbol of independence from the former Soviet Union," she said.
By Michael PerrySYDNEY - Uranium mine sites in Australia's Kakadu national park would have lower radiation levels after the mines are closed than amounts found naturally in the park, a U.N World Heritage committee was told on Thursday.
Mining firm Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) told the U.N. team that its existing Ranger uranium mine and its planned mine at Jabiluka did not endanger the park's World Heritage listing.
"The sites will be better than the pre-mining condition from the perspective of radiation," ERA told the U.N. team in Kakadu.
"Energy Resources of Australia's proposal for Jabiluka does not put at risk the World Heritage values of Kakadu.
"ERA's environmental performance at Ranger has confirmed that co-existence is possible," the miner said in its submission.
The U.N. team is on a four-day trip to remote Kakadu in the Australia's Northern Territory to investigate whether the park should be listed among 25 threatened World Heritage sites because of the construction of the A$12 billion (US$7.44 billion) Jabiluka mine.
ERA said the Alligator River region, which runs through Kakadu, is host to enriched uranium ore bodies formed about 1,800 million years ago and in some areas that radioactive ore had surfaced and been washed into waterways without harming the environment.
But it said radioactive mining waste from the Jabiluka and Ranger mines would never be released into waterways, but buried in pits sealed with rock or used as backfill in the mine.
The waste pits would comfortably exceed all design requirements for the storage of radioactive material, ERA said.
"Regardless of whether the tailings are disposed of at Ranger or Jabiluka, ERA will ensure that the method used will be environmentally secure for in excess of 10,000 years," it said.
Environmentalists opposed to the Jabiluka mine say the 28 million tonnes of radioactive tailings produced in the 28-year life of the mine could leach into Kakadu's world famous wetlands.
Archaeologists say the mining process could also destroy ancient Aboriginal rock art, but ERA said access to uranium would be 1.8 kms (1.1 miles) below ground, limiting any disturbance.
ERA also noted it was legally obliged to rehabilitate the uranium mine sites under the terms of government-approved leases.
The company must revegetate the mine sites in a way compatible with Kakadu's natural environment, establish stable radiological conditions and ensure the health risk to Aboriginal landowners be "as low as is reasonably achievable".
It said rehabilitation of mines must be to the satisfaction of not only government, but also Aboriginal landowners.
"ERA will progressively decommission and rehabilitate the Ranger and Jabiluka mine sites to a condition ecologically and culturally compatible with Kakadu," ERA said.
Aboriginal landowners oppose the Jabiluka mine, arguing it will destroy their living culture which is based on the ancient landscape, and have called for Kakadu to be listed as endangered.
But ERA said it had adopted an interim cultural heritage plan which would avoid significant Aboriginal sites, agree on protocols for entering sites, limit noise and vibration from blasting and work to prevent radioactive contamination.
It also said the mines would provide jobs and housing for local Aborigines, on top of A$210 million in royalties.
Kakadu received World Heritage listing in three stages - 1981, 1987 and 1992 - for its outstanding natural features, although large areas have been excised for mining leases.
An endangered listing would not force the Australian government to stop the planned uranium mine, but such a listing could be a precursor to losing its World Heritage status.
The U.N. team's decision on Kakadu will be put to a World Heritage conference in Kyoto, Japan, in December.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Public Service Co. of New Mexico was authorised by state regulators to assess an additional charge of one half of one percent of its customers' monthly bills to pay for a proposed solar generating plant, a PNM spokesman said Wednesday.
Larry Smith said the authorisation from the state's public utility commission is part of the regulatory agency's effort to find alternative energy sources in the state. The proposal is to build a 5-megawatt solar generating plant near Albuquerque, the first such plant to be set up in the state.
The PUC has estimated the plant will cost about $38 million, Smith said. He said the additional charge, beginning in December, will add about 25 cents to a $50 electric monthly bill paid by an average customer.
"Now that we have the funding mechanism from the PUC, we will go back to the companies that will build the plant," he said. The new charge would apply to PNM's 360,000 residential and business customers and is expected to raise about $2.5 million annually.
PNM had wanted a faster method to fund the solar plant but the PUC decided on a pay-as-you-go basis. However, the funding mechanism may mean the plant will not be ready for several years. When built, the solar plant will be able to provide power to about 25,000 homes, Smith said.
"We are still excited about this because it will stimulate interest in renewable energy sources," Smith said.
The additional charge paid by the customers may be offset by a rate cut the PUC is likely to order.
Two companies have been selected to build the solar plant but Smith said the issue has to be renegotiated under the proposed funding mechanism. The two companies are Applied Power Co. of Lacey, Wash., and Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, Calif.
BERNE - President Jacques Chirac said Wednesday he favoured maintaining nuclear power as France's prime energy source.
"Our economic interest is to maintain this option," Chirac told a news conference while on a visit to Switzerland.
"There would be little interest for France and probably a lot of inconvenience..." if France chose to rely on different energy sources, he said.
Chirac said 80 percent of France's electricity came from nuclear energy, ensuring permanent low prices.
Chirac's comments are at odds with Environment Minister Dominique Voynet, head of the Greens party, who last week launched a drive to wean France off nuclear power.
WASHINGTON - The United States and other industrialised nations will have to rely on nuclear power to help cut greenhouse gas emissions under a global warming pact, a top U.S. State Department official said on Wednesday.
"I believe very firmly that nuclear has to be a significant part of our energy future and a large part of the western world, if we're going to meet these (emission reduction) targets," said Stuart Eizenstat, undersecretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs.
Eizenstat, in a speech to environmentalists, also said he foresees greater use of natural gas to generate power because it's cleaner than many other fuels and there's ample supply worldwide. He also said he believes there's still room for coal as well.
Under the global warming agreement, the Clinton administration has committed the United States to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels between the years 2008 and 2012.
Negotiations resume next week in Buenos Aires on the terms of the Kyoto Treaty reached in Japan in December 1997. Eizenstat said the Clinton administration would not submit the treaty to the U.S. Senate for approval until developing countries agree to cuts in their emissions.
While environmentalists generally support the administration's plan, they don't like nuclear power because of the problem with storing spent nuclear fuel.
Eizenstat acknowledged that the storage problem must be worked out, but he said environmental groups must "rethink" their position on nuclear power and the role it can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"Those who think we can accomplish these goals without a significant nuclear industry, I think are simply mistaken," he said, in response to questions from members of the International Climate Change Partnership, an environmental group that supports the Kyoto accord.
"In the energy mix, nuclear (power) can't be excluded," Eizenstat said.
As for other fuels, Eizenstat pointed out that natural gas is "plentiful. We're finding more and more of it worldwide, and gas will clearly be a very major factor."
And he said that coal, as long as the cleaner-burning type is used, remains an alternative, adding, "I would hope that we would move not away from coal per se...but the use of coal would be become fairly cleaner as an ingredient in our energy mix."
Utilities are the biggest users of coal in the United States. Much of the coal they buy to fuel their power generating plants is mined in the East, which is dirtier than than cleaner-burning coal found in the West. The Western coal is more expensive for Eastern utilities because of shipping costs.
By Michael Perry
SYDNEY - Environmentalists on Wednesday warned the United Nations that millions of tonnes of radioactive tailings from a planned uranium mine in Australia's Kakadu national park would threaten its fragile ecosystem.
A U.N. World Heritage committee in Australia to investigate whether Kakadu should be declared endangered was told that the A$12 billion (US$7.44 billion) Jabiluka mine would produce 28 million tonnes of radioactive tailings in its life.
"The natural values in Kakadu are clearly in danger from the Jabiluka uranium mine," Wilderness Society Alec Marr told Reuters from Kakadu after 14 conservation groups met with the U.N. team.
"The geology of the site is very fractured, water courses through the rock and no one knows where they are going to stick the radioactive tailings," Marr said.
"There is a strong probability that part of the tailings may leak straight into the bleeding heart of Kakadu, that is the wetlands," he said.
Marr said Kakadu's existing Ranger uranium mine, which is estimated to produce 40 million tonnes of tailings in its life, had already damaged the park's environment.
He said the Yellowstone National Park in the United States was placed on the World Heritage endangered list in 1995 because of a planned gold mine, which would have produced only 2.5 million tonnes of tailings in its life.
"No one knows how big the Jabiluka mine will be and in which direction it will go and because of that they do not know how they will manage the tailings," Marr said.
Environmentalists, along with Jabiluka's Aboriginal landowners, have called on the U.N. committee to place Kakadu on a World Heritage endangered list.
While an endangered listing could not force the Australian government to stop the planned uranium mine, it could be a precursor to losing World Heritage status.
Sites on the World Heritage endangered list include the old city of Jerusalem and its walls, the ancient city of Timbuktu in the African state of Mali and the temples at Angkor in Cambodia.
The U.N. team was also told on Wednesday that Kakadu's cultural heritage, one of the reasons it was granted World Heritage listing, was also in danger.
Australia's branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which advises on cultural sites, said the mine threatened the nearby 50,000 to 60,000-year-old Malakunanja 2 archaeological site and the park's living Aboriginal culture.
It said it was "not convinced that the archaeological evidence of Malakunanja 2 will retain its integrity given the pressures of the proposed mine".
"This uncertainty about the mine's impact on this rock art - part of the corpus of World Heritage-listed Kakadu rock art - is of great concern," the council said in its submission.
"Australia ICOMOS therefore concludes that the cultural World Heritage values of Kakadu national park are in danger and recommends that corrective measures be established...," it said.
Kakadu received World Heritage listing in three stages - 1981, 1987 and 1992 - for its outstanding natural and cultural features, although large areas have been excised for mining.
The Jabiluka mine owner Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) will address the U.N. team on Thursday. ERA expects the mine to generate A$12 billion in revenue during its 28-year life, making Australia one of the world's leading uranium producers.
The U.N. team's decision on Kakadu's fate will be put to a World Heritage conference in Kyoto, Japan, in December.
LONDON - Germany will have to take back nuclear waste currently stored in the UK even if they scrap nuclear power, British nuclear sources said on Wednesday.
"There are return of waste clauses in these contracts," said a spokesman at state-owned British Nuclear Fuels, which operates the Sellafield site in northwest England where German atomic waste is currently stored.
On Saturday, Germany's future government said it was committed to decommissioning the country's 19 nuclear reactors, which provide a third of the nation's electricity, despite opposition from Germany's nuclear utilities.
Although reprocessing is a drawn-out process which takes years, contracts stipulate the reconditioned nuclear fuel is returned to its country of origin.
Finding a safe place for the processed nuclear waste could be a headache for Germany if the country has dismantled its nuclear industry, nuclear experts say.
The waste plutonium will eventually be returned in one of two forms.
One would be in the form of MOX (mixed oxide) fuel. MOX fuel is created by reprocesing plutonium and mixing it with uranium. The "new" fuel is then burnt in nuclear power stations to generate more electricity, which would prove to be problematic for Germany should it eliminate its stations.
The second option is to recieve the waste in vitrified form - the plutonium is literally encased in glass. The vitrified plutonium would then have to be safely stored, again difficult, because Germany has yet to install a long-term nuclear dump and faces considerable domestic opposition to do so.
By Marcel Michelson
NICE, France - Nuclear power supporters, stressing their industry's green credentials, on Monday urged Europe's new wave of leftist governments not to turn their backs on atomic energy.
Delegates at the World Nuclear Expo conference, organised by the pro-nuclear group the European Nuclear Society (ENS), said they could play a vital role in the fight against global warming but warned they might have to use scare tactics to get heard.
Alarm bells have been ringing across the industry in recent months as leftist governments, some supported by anti-nuclear Green parties, have gained predominance throughout Western Europe.
France decided earlier this year to close a fault-prone reactor in a move hailed by the French enviroment minister as "the first real defeat" for the nuclear lobby.
Austria already advocates a nuclear-free zone in Central Europe, Germany's radical Green party now forms part of the national government in Bonn, and Switzerland is debating when to close its existing five nuclear power plants.
But despite this anti-nuclear feeling, the Expo conference heard that without the nuclear industry, industrialised nations would struggle to meet a United Nations' commitment reached in Kyoto last year, to slash emissions of so-called greenhouse gases by 5.2 percent from 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012.
"For Europe as a whole, nuclear power (already) helps to avoid the emission of some 700 million tonnes CO2 (carbondioxide) annually," said Hans Blix, director-general emeritus of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Nuclear power generates 35 percent of total EU electricity consumption, with the figure as high as 76 percent in France.
Blix was scathing about the European Parliament which in February nearly adopted a proposal declaring that nuclear power was not a safe and sustainable method of energy production.
But he said a nightmare scenario might be needed to convince people of the positive effects of nuclear power.
"If the public and media in many countries were to become even more worried by reports that the past eight years have been the warmest in the Northern hemisphere for the last 600 years, that huge islands of ice have been breaking away from the Antarctic or that there is a new and greater frequency of severe weather conditions, then the public might insist on seeing actual reductions in CO2 emissions," he said.
For the next decade, industry experts do not see much growth in European plants, because most programmes have been completed, but key decisions are needed for the next generation of plants.
Zack Pate, chairman of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), showed with data that nuclear power plants had become far more reliable and less waste producing than in the days of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters.
However, he warned that operators had to be careful not to lower their attention over safety when faced with cost pressures from the increased deregulation of electricity markets.
Jean Syrota, chairman of French nuclear materials group COGEMA, said the reprocessing and recycling of spent nuclear material drastically reduced nuclear waste.
"The nuclear industry has the know-how and capability to recycle 95 percent of the content of spent fuel," he said.
FRANKFURT - German utilities and the designated environment minister of the new German government on Monday hardened their respective positions in the looming battle over nuclear energy.
The three largest utilities groups vowed they would not break ranks in any negotiations with the government and pledged to seek billions of marks in damages if the "Red-Green" coalition forces a premature shut-down of their atomic plants.
Meanwhile, Juergen Trittin, who is likely to lead talks aimed at ending use of nuclear power in Germany, told a newspaper that the new government would shut down several nuclear plants within four years, whether the utility companies agree to it or not.
"I expect that in this legislative period a series of nuclear power plants will be shut down," said Trittin, who will become environment minister when a coalition of Social Democrats and the Greens Party takes power on Tuesday.
"We don't have to do it in consensus (with industry). We have a legal majority for that."
The new government has given utilities a year to come up with a plan to close Germany's 19 atomic reactors. But the three big electric companies -- PreussenElektra AG, RWE Energie AG and Bayernwerk AG -- are ready to put up a joint defence.
"There will be no chance of dividing the industry against itself," PreussenElektra chief Hans-Dieter Harig told newsweekly Focus on behalf of the three firms.
The companies could go to court to win compensation if the government prevails, and would sue for damages on a wide variety of points -- including lost future profits and costs for closing nuclear waste disposal sites and ending contracts with French and British firms that process atomic materials.
"He who would like a quick shut-down must pay out more money," Harig said. "He who gives time, has to pay less."
Focus said the firms might agree to a shut down of a few of the oldest nuclear plants. RWE Energie's Biblis A reactor, for example, is 24 years old and due for an expensive modernisation.
Thirty-year old Obrigheim, which is controlled by Energie Baden-Wuertemberg, likewise requires renovation.
The 19 nuclear plants provide a third of Germany's electricity and are the utilities' most important source of inexpensive power. They have been counting on the plants to help then weather a storm of price competition when Europe opens its electricity markets in April.
PreussenElektra, a unit of Veba AG, gets 40 percent of its power from atomic reactors, while RWE Energie, a subsidiary of RWE AG depends on nuclear plants for 29 percent of its electricity.
Sixty-four percent of Bayernwerk's power comes from nuclear plants. It is a unit of Viag AG.