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Time for Caution

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The automatic response of spokesmen for the U.S. nuclear industry to the Soviet nuclear disaster is to say that it couldn’t happen here. They may be right--although nobody will really know until and unless the details of the Chernobyl accident are available. However, anybody who really believes that the Soviet disaster is irrelevant to the American nuclear program is mistaken.

It is true that the ill-fated Soviet reactor was of a fundamentally different design than the water-cooled and moderated reactors that are used in commercial nuclear power plants in this country. More important, it is probably true that the catastrophic release of radioactivity from the Soviet plant wouldn’t have occurred if the reactor had been enclosed in a containment structure like those that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires of all U.S. commercial reactors. Without such a containment structure to bottle up escaping radioactivity, the Three Mile Island accident in this country seven years ago would have had far, far worse consequences.

The fact is, however, that the U.S. government operates five reactors--at Hanford, Wash., and Savannah River, S.C.--that produce nuclear weapons material, are not subject to all the regulations that apply to commercial power reactors, and do not have containment structures. Congress should insist on an immediate review to determine if these plants should be shut down.

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As for commercial reactors, the disaster in the Ukraine is a useful reminder that nuclear power is not inherently safe but inherently dangerous. When nuclear power enthusiasts tell us that there isn’t a chance in a million of a catastrophic accident at a given site, that is not entirely reassuring. Any system devised by human beings can fail. What makes nuclear accidents unique is that, when they do occur, the cost in lives and public health can be so enormous and long-lasting.

It is a little unsettling, with the benefit of hindsight, to read that a Soviet official once told the governor of Pennsylvania that Soviet reactors were so safe that one could be built in Red Square without danger to the populace.

A Soviet magazine recently carried an article on the Chernobyl complex itself in which an engineer boasted that working at the plant “is safer than driving a car.”

At the very least the Reagan Administration should back off from proposals to make federal regulation of nuclear power plants less stringent. But a more fundamental rethinking is also in order.

In the absence of a determined, well-funded program to develop alternative energy sources as a hedge against declining reserves of oil and gas, it may not be practical to close all U.S. nuclear power plants as demanded by Ralph Nader, Helen Caldicott and other nuclear activisits. However, the handwriting may already be on the wall--for both safety reasons and the diminishing economic feasibility of nuclear power.

Austrians voted in 1978 not to turn on a newly built reactor. The Danish parliament last year shelved plans to build nuclear plants. And Sweden, a world leader in nuclear technology, is planning to phase out its 12 reactors early in the next century. When you consider that no new construction of power reactors has been initiated in America for several years, it is obvious that we may be following a de facto phase-out policy ourselves.

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It may not be a bad thing.

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