Chernobyl Syndrome: Are Accidents Waiting to Happen? : Crude and poorly maintained Eastern European and Soviet nuclear-power plants need West's intervention immediately

Nuclear power has been called a Faustian bargain. Science promises society inexhaustible energy. In exchange, society must guarantee eternal stability. In Eastern Europe and in the erstwhile Soviet Union, society has broken the deal, and there is hell to pay.

Nuclear power requires social stability because, as the United States had occasion to learn after the Three Mile Island accident, the smooth functioning of a nuclear power plant requires an unbroken supply of top-quality, low-tech hardware. The Three Mile Island accident began with a faulty valve. A fire last month at Chernobyl's No. 2 reactor began with a defective switch.

Unfortunately, in its chaotic transition from command economy to market economy, the former Eastern Bloc can no longer provide such industrial necessities. Nothing on the shelves for the consumer means nothing on the shelf for the plant manager as well. Factories cannot get raw materials. When they can, they often cannot get their products into distribution. The consequences for basic maintenance in Soviet-built nuclear power plants are potentially catastrophic. And many of these reactors lack containment structures, the heavy concrete shells that encase American reactors and at least retard the consequences of an accident.

A BULGARIAN 'BOMB': Germany, which immediately shut down the Soviet-built reactors that it inherited in the former East Germany, has cannibalized them for parts to shore up a frighteningly dilapidated reactor at Kozlodui in Bulgaria, "a bomb waiting to go off," according to German sources. Earlier this year, the European Community began an aid program for reactors in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria.

A turning point may have been reached last Tuesday, however, when the Ukrainian legislature--not, notably, any Russian or central authority--announced that the Chernobyl reactors remaining in use would be closed by the end of 1993. The decision was a tough one for the Ukraine: It will mean energy conservation, if not rationing, in the years ahead. But it comes linked to a dramatic but utterly necessary challenge to the West.

The Ukraine has challenged Western scientists, individually and collectively, to come up with a long-term solution for Chernobyl's wrecked reactor No. 4. The concrete "sarcophagus" built around the highly radioactive wreckage is already showing cracks and leaks. The Ukraine has announced an international competition to devise a more lasting remedy.

The Ukraine's further challenge is to the Western governments. It has called on the United Nations--essentially on those nations with a nuclear power industry--to help it meet the estimated $15-billion cost of the Chernobyl shutdown. Vladimir F. Shovkoshytny, former Chernobyl engineer and current member of the Ukrainian legislature, said last week: "It's the first time that a large nuclear plant has been liquidated anywhere in the world. It's not just our problem, it's a problem that faces the whole world."

Shovkoshytny is right; and what the industrial democracies--above all those of Western Europe--must realize is that meeting the Eastern European and Soviet nuclear emergency is not a matter of generosity alone but also of self-defense.

The 1986 accident at Chernobyl No. 4 was contained, barely, only by a costly, vast and quasi-military mobilization of which the Soviet Union is no longer capable. If there is another such accident, either the West will contain it or it will go uncontained.

DWARFING HIROSHIMA: The terrifying dimensions of that 1986 accident are only now coming fully to light. Grigori Medvedev, winner of this year's Los Angeles Times Book Prize for science and technology for his book "The Truth About Chernobyl," writes that "the mass of the radioactive substances formed when (the Hiroshima bomb) was detonated amounted to almost 4.5 tons. However, the reactor of No. 4 unit at Chernobyl spewed into the atmosphere almost 50 tons of evaporated fuel, thus creating a colossal atmospheric reservoir of long-lived radionuclides: In other words, 10 Hiroshima bombs, without the initial blast and firestorm effects. . . . "

One recalls that the West first learned about the Chernobyl accident from monitors in Sweden.

The Pripyat Research Industrial Assn., now in charge of the Chernobyl cleanup, estimates that it has moved a million cubic meters of soil for deposit in 600 gigantic trenches. So far, an estimated 600,000 people have taken part in the cleanup. Thirty-one died in the original explosion; but according to Vladimir Chernousenko, a Soviet nuclear physicist who supervised the emergency team sent to Chernobyl five days after the accident (and who is himself dying of radiation sickness), 5,000 to 7,000 have died as a result of the cleanup.

Jesse H. Ausubel, writing in The Sciences magazine after a visit to Chernobyl, says: "I came away . . . thinking that the evacuation and other contingency planning now under debate in the U.S. (for American reactor safety) is simply not meaningful. No such measures are likely to encompass the scope of what would need to be done in the event of an accident as serious as the one at Chernobyl. How can you prepare to think about decontaminating every structure in a 2,000-square-kilometer zone? My conclusion is not to abandon emergency preparedness but to concentrate on engineering systems in which the maximum conceivable nuclear accidents do not approach the dimensions of Chernobyl."

Ausubel is right; but while we prevent Chernobyls at home, we must also prevent more Chernobyls at Chernobyl. Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and Rep. Pete Stark (D-Oakland) have recently introduced legislation to increase American support of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but their legislation is aimed at containing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in countries like Iran and Iraq. Terrifying as is the prospect of an Iraqi atomic bomb, that danger is less immediate than the danger of a catastrophic nuclear accident in Eastern Europe or, grim thought, a series of such accidents.

The IAEA needs new political will as well as new financial strength to do its job. The operators of a Chernobyl-in-the-making need to fear IAEA inspectors as much as the operators of a clandestine nuclear weapons facility do. To note that neither stands in much fear of the pro-nuclear agency is merely to state a problem that cries out for immediate address.

The United States' U.N. ambassador, Thomas R. Pickering, should take the lead in making the Ukraine's request for assistance at Chernobyl a top priority.

The Group of Seven (an association of leading industrial powers, including the United States), which met recently in Bangkok to consider Mikhail S. Gorbachev's request for economic assistance, should regard emergency attention to Soviet reactors as scarcely less important than food aid.

Food is understandably the constant Soviet preoccupation as winter descends, but one or two nuclear accidents would quickly change that. Candor about the state of a nation's nuclear reactors and ready access to them by international inspectors and eventual rescue teams should be a condition for economic aid of any sort whether in the erstwhile Soviet Union or in Eastern Europe.

A SMALL PLANET: In 1989, three years after the Chernobyl accident, plant owners from around the world formed the World Assn. of Nuclear Operators, headquartered in London. But its functions have been purely advisory: It has, for example, encouraged visits by Eastern engineers to Western plants. Last month, nuclear regulators from the Group of Seven met to lay plans for a common set of safety standards. But that meeting was clearly not the response to a perceived emergency. Unfortunately, the precedent for intervention is weak.

Shovkoshytny called Chernobyl last week "a cause of constant fear for citizens of Kiev and for the whole world, because we live on a small planet."

Our planet is indeed small, and our eleventh-hour struggle to save it from ourselves is the now unmistakable successor to the Cold War. Ausubel writes: "Chernobyl should be turned into an international laboratory, a world heritage site. Governments have accepted the designation of world heritage sites such as the pyramids of Egypt and biospheric reserves such as the Everglades in Florida. Chernobyl is as significant an environmental site as exists on the planet. In that sense it does belong to everyone."

It does indeed. In dealing with this devil, the whole world is Faust.

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