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The Chernobyl Syndrome: Measuring Nuclear Risk

May 04, 1986|Bennett Ramberg | Bennett Ramberg is senior research associate at the UCLA Center for International and Strategic Affairs and author of "Global Nuclear Energy Risks: The Search for Preventive Medicine" (Westview).

In the aftermath of the Soviet nuclear accident, business as usual will not suffice if the nuclear industry is to survive worldwide. While the imme diate consequences of the Soviet accident remain unclear, the breadth and nature of contamination suggest Soviet problems are just beginning. Although the incident at Three Mile Island was relatively minor compared with what the scientific community believes is now taking place at Chernobyl, that earlier mishap provides lessons for what we might now expect in the Soviet Union.

In a Princeton University study examining what could have happened at Three Mile Island--a reactor 10% smaller than Chernobyl--had there been a meltdown and containment failure, Jan Beyea concluded that up to 175,000 square miles of land located downwind from the reactor would be subject to agricultural restrictions. He further suggested long-term occupation restrictions might apply to 5,300 square miles. (Using a less conservative calculation, an MIT team suggested restricting 2,200 square miles.) Although the danger zone would shrink over the months and years as the radioactivity decreased, inhabitants within the zone would continue to absorb nuclear material deposited on the ground. The number of people who would succumb to death or illness would depend on the population exposed and the intensity of radiation exposure.

In the Three Mile Island meltdown scenario, Beyea suggested that up to 450,000 people could develop thyroid nodules and 60,000 fatal cancers years after the accident. Significant numbers of genetic mutations also would result. Given the Soviet penchant for secrecy, we may never know whether such paper calculations will accurately define the human cost of Chernobyl.

Beyond the Soviet Union, the nuclear industry has been subjected to numerous unpleasant surprises over the years. Accidents such as Three Mile Island and several alleged near-misses in the United States were not supposed to happen. Elsewhere, among 14 non-communist nations, the General Accounting Office reported 151 "significant nuclear safety incidents" from 1971 to 1984. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's response has been to dismiss the probability of a major release of radioactivity and relax safety standards to conform with optimistic scientific calculations.

Beyond accidents, the industry's problems are complicated by a spectrum of strategic risks and inadequate safeguards.

-- Nuclear sabotage. Between 1966 and 1982, 115 terrorist incidents, including bombings and arson, took place outside the United States. None resulted in serious releases of radioactivity. Regrettably, many countries are unprepared to address the threat. For example, United States regulation prescribes that reactor operators need not protect against more than one insider; more than three external attackers; attackers operating with more than hand-held automatic weapons or explosives in quantities greater than can be carried by hand (thus excluding protection against the truck-bomb incidents seen in the Middle East), or against "an enemy of the United States."

--Military attacks on reactors. Since Iran initiated the first military attack on a nuclear reactor in 1980, when it bombed Baghdad's research facility at the outset of the Iran-Iraq War, reactors have been subject to four attacks: Israel's 1981 destruction of the Iraqi plant and three Iraqi strikes against Iran's Bushehr installation. Fortunately none of these plants were operating at the time and nuclear releases were avoided. We cannot be sanguine that this will always be the case. Unfortunately, international law allows such attacks if they destroy plants contributing to military operations. Efforts to arrive at an international prohibition have failed in the U.N. Committee on Disarmament, in part due to U.S. opposition.

-- National and terrorist diversion of nuclear material for atomic weapons. Six nations have detonated atomic weapons: the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, China and India. Many analysts suspect that Israel and South Africa also have the bomb. With the introduction of civilian reprocessing in France, Germany, Japan, India, Britain and the Soviet Union, weapons-grade plutonium could enter nuclear commerce, giving nations and terrorist groups the opportunity to divert poorly safeguarded material for nuclear weapons. While international conventions such as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty attempt to address the challenges, much remains to be done to assure that adequate safeguards are applied.

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