Shrouded by the heavy morning mist, the twin-domed structure rises from the shore of the Persian Gulf like a pagan temple. By midday, more than 10,000 workers will be laboring here -- in desert heat that can soar to over 120 degrees -- building two huge atomic power stations.

An Iranian attorney, who has played a key role in Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's controversial effort to industrialize rapidly his feudal country through a nuclear power program, stands at the base of the massive concrete fortress gazing in awe.

"These," he says, in a tone of reverence, "are our modern pyramids."

In fact, constructing atomic power stations -- as the shah has belatedly found out -- is an even more ambitious undertaking for most developing countries than erecting pyramids.

It takes far more men, far more time, and far more money to build an atomic plant in a country like Iran or Brazil, for example, than it would in the United States.

More important, atomic power plants -- unlike the pyramids -- are high-technology systems. Building them so that they can be operated safely poses unique quality control requirements largely not understood, at least initially, by the responsible officials of most developing nations.

Jim Wook Chung was a professor of nuclear engineering at the State University of New York when the International Atomic Energy Agency sent him to his native South Korea two years ago to advise the government on safety standards for its first atomic power stations.

"They discussed sincerely all the problems, but you could feel the lack of experience," says Chung. "They knew they had to have a concept of quality assurance and safety, but they didn't have the manpower."

The need for trained and skilled manpower in regulatory and supervisory positions is particularly important for countries like Iran and Brazil, which are both using thousands of illiterate laborers.

"It's a bit scary because the labor force is not used to building this kind of sophisticated plant," remarks an IAEA safety inspector. "They treat it as though they were building a pulp mill."

Iran, to some extent, has avoided the worst of the problems by placing virtually all the responsibility for its first four atomic power stations in the hands of West German and French contractors.

This so-caalled "turn-key" approach -- misleadingly suggesting that Iran simply will be able upon completion to turn a key and start up the reactors -- has been carried to such an extreme that the Germans have even brought all the concrete for the plants with them from Germany.

"We don't have any standardization in Iran to tell you what is the strength of this concrete," an Iranian engineer said. "You could not trust local cement to meet the specifications."

But Brazil, anxious to acquire the capacity to build nuclear power stations on its own by the late 1980s, has insisted on playing a far larger role in construction of its first three atomic plants at Angra dos Reis on the coast between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The result has been virtually a textbook study of the pitfalls and perils to be avoided in building atomic power stations in a developing land.

"Brazil," an IAEA official said after pleading not to be named, "has fantastic problems."

The tale of Brazil's woes would have to start with the chapter, "Picking the Location."

The site, a relatively narrow coastal strip, was selected in the late 1960s because of its location midway between the booming cities of Rio de Janeiro and San Paulo.

The choice proved barely adequate for the first small atomic reactor, which Westinghouse managed to build mostly on a foundation of rock at one end of the cove.

Nobody seems able to explain why when Brazil decided to buy eight huge reactors -- each more than double the size of the Westinghouse plant -- from West Germany's Kraftwerk Union, it opted to put two of them at Angra, and sit them on 130-foot-deep concrete pilings.

The construction problems that decision has caused have been a continuing nightmare. "Today, maybe with the knowledge we have, we would have picked another place," concedes a top official of Furnas, the Brazilian electric company.

The lack of careful planning in Brazil's nuclear power program is evident in other areas as well.

When a storm last spring sent waves crashing over the sea wall at Angra, where the first nuclear power plant sits 15 feet above sea level, alarmed officials hastily hired a consulting firm. The consultants concluded that a 29-foot "catastrophic wave" could conceivably strike the location sometime in the next 100 years.

Today, more than a year after Angra 1 was originally scheduled to go into operation, contractors are belatedly building a breakwater out into the bay. "We've decided to build a jetty that could dampen the effect of the waves during normal operation, and guard against the catastrophic wave," an official said.

Little consideration also seems to have been given to the possibility of an earthquake at Angra, despite the fact that the area has been jolted by quakes four times in the past century.

And despite the fact that the second and third Angra plants are nominally modeled on an atomic power station in West Germany, the Brazilian nuclear energy commission has decided not to enforce German safetay standards on the contractor.

West Germany, for example, now requires that reactor containment structures be 78 inches thick to withstand the possible crash of a plane the size of an F4 Phantom.

"Our regulatory body said, 'You don't have to follow this requirement,'" an official at Furnas said. The containment structure for Angra will be only 31 inches thick.

Security around the site has long been lax. Only now is an eight-foothigh perimeter fence being completed.

Brazilian officials seem little concerned about the possibility of terrorism -- a rather remarkable attitude for what many foreign observers believe is not the world's most stable military regime.

"We feel that our terrorists may be less equipped than German or American terrorists," a Brazilian official explained. "So for the time being, we have less stringent requirements for security than both Germany or the United States."

The problem of building three nuclear reactors in a painfully cramped site has been enormously aggravated by the presence of more than 10,000 Brazilian workers.

This is at least triple the number of workers that would be found on a comparable U.S. construction project. Most of the men -- brought down from the remote northeast, the most backward area of Brazil -- had never worked on a construction site.

"When 1 first came here, nobody wore shoes," a Westinghouse engineer recalled. "Can you imagine?"

During one five-month period, there were 71 fires in areas of the site considered critical. Gen. Armando Barcellos, chief of security for the Brazilian nuclear energy commission, suggested that "sinister interests" might have been responsible.

A special report prepared for Furnas offered a more plausible explanation. It noted that many of the workers brought their lunches in tin containers, and at noon made fires wherever they wished to heat their meals -- even inside wooden buildings under construction.

Sanitary facilities for a long time were virtually nonexistent. While this situation has improved somewhat, the head of the Brazilian nuclear energy commission, Hervasio de Carvelho, told President Ernesto Geisel in February that Angra 1 would have to be thoroughly washed down before it went into operation because the workers had been urinating on the equipment.

At least as serious as the housekeeping problems is the fact that almost the entire labor force is illiterate.

"In the U.S., the lowest laborer can read drawings," an American engineer said. "At Angra, most of the laborers could not read -- period."

Few came to Angra with any construction skills, and Brazilian contractors -- aware that most would quickly leave the remote construction site to take jobs closer to the bright lights of Rio -- tended to put them to work without training.

"The turnover is very high," said Alceo Antonio Braga Lopes, chief of construction on the second Angra reactor. "Maybe in three years, you change 100 percent."

What quality of work can you expect out of a labor force like this? When Westinghouse was starting on the first reactor, it took a look at standards on other large Brazilian construction projects. "The weld rejection rate on these projects," an engineer recalled, "was running about 60 percent."

While Westinghouse officials say they achieved a far better standard on Angra 1 through close supervision, a top Furnas official conceded that to acquire "the concept of quality assurance needed for a nuclear power plant takes a lot of time."

The situation undoubtedly will improve as Brazil and other developing countries become more conscious of the special demands involved in building nuclear power plants.

"I believe in the last eight months, we have improved a lot," Braga Lopes said. A Westinghouse engineer working at Angra agreed. "During the time I've been here, safety has improved a couple hundred percent."

But while Brazil may be building atomic reactors every bit as well as West Germany or the United States by the 1990s, experts say it's hard to predict the future consequences of mistakes or sloppy work performed in the construction of the plants going up today.

The question, in the case of projects like Angra, is how comfortable one can feel about the safety of nuclear power plants being constructed by illiterate laborers who think they are working on a project to send a Brazilian astronaut to the moon.

One of the West German engineers working on the Angra project had an answer.

"The only way you'd get me back in that place after it's finished," he said, "is in a lead suit."

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