In Chernobyl Recovery, a Lesson We Must Learn

Richard Wilson, Mallinckrodt professor of physics at Harvard University, is an expert on nuclear reactor safety.

Two years ago this week, the Lenin Atomic Power Plant near Chernobyl in the Ukraine exploded.

We now know that the reactor had an unstable design, quite unlike any commercial reactor in the West, and was not protected by a containment building. When reactor operators violated important safety rules during the course of an experiment, these two basic flaws helped produce the largest accident in the history of nuclear energy.

Although the initial response to the accident was not fully coordinated, the Soviets soon recovered and managed the accident very well. While 31 workers ultimately died of thermal, chemical and radiation effects, many more might have died without the medical care of Dr. Angeline Guskova at Moscow's Hospital No. 6, who was helped by Dr. Robert Gale of UCLA and other foreign physicians.

To minimize radiation exposure to the general population, about 135,000 people were evacuated from the area around Chernobyl. This was accomplished under difficult logistical conditions: few roads (only two lanes at best), inadequate communications and no advanced preparation. It appears that none of the evacuees received enough radiation to get radiation sickness. Prof. Ludmila Lukianova, head of the Institute of Gynecology and Pediatrics in Kiev, has subsequently told me that of the 1,800 children born to the evacuees, all are as healthy as 800 born just before the accident.

Now, two years later, three of the four reactors at Chernobyl are in full-power operation and the fourth is safely entombed, emitting no radioactivity. Hundreds of square miles of slightly radioactive trees have been uprooted and buried, the radiation levels have fallen several thousandfold and the population is slowly returning to the evacuated area. The thousands of Soviet volunteers directly involved (many of whom I have met), are clearly proud of their recovery from the accident.

The basic attraction of nuclear energy is inherent in the fact that over 3 million times more energy is obtained from a pound of purified uranium than from burning a pound of coal. This concentration of energy provides enormous fundamental environmental advantages. Far less material needs to be mined and handled, far less waste is generated and nuclear energy does not contribute to air pollution, acid rain or the greenhouse effect.

Prof. Valery Legasov, the chairman of the Soviet government's investigation commission, and others have stated publicly that the Soviet Union is still committed to its nuclear power program because of these substantial benefits. Since the Chernobyl accident, five more Soviet nuclear power plants have begun operations. This commitment is in stark contrast to the implicit and often blatant calls for abandoning nuclear power here in the United States.

But the pragmatic assessment of the fundamental benefits--even in the wake of Chernobyl--should not be surprising. To take the path of abandoning a technology because of one accident would put a nation on a backward trend. An industrial society proceeds largely by concentrating critical tasks where they can be more effectively and safely accomplished. Nuclear energy is only the latest in a long line of technological and industrial developments.

The success of any industrial society is its ability to adopt and use new technologies. This includes the vital functions of prevention, management and recovery from accidents. The statistical evidence shows that the United Staes has been foremost among nations in reducing the probability of accidents of all sorts, whether automobiles or dam failures. The Soviets have now demonstrated their ability to manage and recover from a serious industrial accident.

The Soviets have asked the United States and the rest of the world for help in understanding how to prevent nuclear accidents. Indeed, a team of Soviet officials is in the United States this week studying reactor safety and regulation. Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev has pointed to Chernobyl to illustrate why glasnost (openness) is necessary. A new Soviet institute on safe nuclear power operations has been formed and the first telex has been received by the U.S. Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, establishing a hot line between Soviet and American nuclear power plants.

It would be tragic if, for local political reasons, we learn the wrong lesson from the Soviet experience at Chernobyl. There is nothing to suggest that one should oppose new nuclear plants ostensibly because of the difficulty in evacuating people living near those plants. When I visited Chernobyl I saw the 20-foot-wide road along which 45,000 people were evacuated in two hours on April 27, 1986. The comparison is striking against the backdrop of the 90-foot-wide American roads and highways near the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire and the Shoreham facility on Long Island. Both for accident management and accident recovery, the United States has far greater resources than does the Soviet Union. Yet some people of influence still assert falsely there can be no recovery from a nuclear accident.

This is symptomatic of a broader dissatisfaction with and misunderstanding of modern technology. Economic progress requires that we move forward with industrial technologies, while pragmatically learning to master the important principles of accident prevention, management and recovery. The nation that applies these technological principles will lead the world. If America shrinks from the challenge in the false belief that we cannot control technologies such as nuclear power, Nikita Khrushchev's famous prediction--that the Russians will bury us--may yet come to pass.

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