SAN DIEGO — As a cloud of radioactivity from the damaged Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl drifted across Western Europe recently, Phil Pryde's telephone in San Diego began ringing off the hook. Members of the American news media needed information about the construction and safety of nuclear reactors in the Soviet Union, and one of the first people they turned to was Pryde, a professor of geography at San Diego State University.
Pryde, 48, has visited the Soviet Union four times, most recently in 1983 as part of an exchange program between American and Soviet scientists. He is the top U.S. expert on conservation and environmental protection within the Soviet Union and has followed closely that country's growing commitment to nuclear power.
The accident at Chernobyl "really didn't surprise me too much," Pryde said. The Soviets place great importance on meeting the production goals of their five-year plans, he said, and when the end of a year looms, they tend to give construction deadlines for new industrial facilities priority over any plans or equipment that might prevent environmental catastrophes. Under such pressure, the chances for an accident rise significantly.
"I would say that probably half of all their nuclear power plants have begun operating in the month of December--and probably in the last week of December--so the managers could say they had met the deadline of a particular plan," Pryde said.
"If you fulfill the goals of your plan, you might get a week's vacation on the Crimea," he said. But no one gets a week on the Crimea for building a sewage treatment plant or completing an evacuation plan for a nuclear reactor accident, he pointed out.
The Soviet drive to rapidly increase industrial output has also led to other environmental problems--problems that for the most part are similar to those in the United States. Pryde said that, in addition to the inherent hazards of nuclear technology and its resulting wastes, the Soviets are trying to deal with air and water pollution, endangered animals and plants, and dwindling reserves of domestic oil.
"Certainly the scientific community in the Soviet Union understands the problems and the need for environmental protection," he said. "As in the U.S., it's a matter of (constantly) playing catch-up. . . . and they're strapped for funds."
But there are important differences between the two countries' approaches to conservation, too. According to Pryde, the differences are sharpest in environmental legislation and public activism.
Pryde first visited the Soviet Union for several months as a graduate student in 1967. His doctoral dissertation was entitled "Conservation in the Soviet Union," and the subject has been the main focus of his research ever since.
He became interested in the Soviet Union after learning about it while serving in U.S. Army intelligence. In graduate school, he decided to specialize in resource conservation, a branch of geography that focuses on the use of land, energy and water resources.
Pryde speaks some Russian, is proficient at reading it, and keeps up with environmental issues within the Soviet Union by reading newspapers such as Pravda and Izvestia, as well as Soviet textbooks and scientific journals. He has also visited many education institutions in the Soviet Union and has talked with their environmental experts.
He returned to the Soviet Union in 1976 to attend a geographers' conference, and again in 1978 to study Soviet environmental law and public education programs on environmental issues. In 1983, he visited the country again with other American geographers. "I've been in most parts of the country at one time or another," he said.
On the 1983 trip Pryde toured a pulp mill, an aluminum processing plant and the Chernozem nature preserve near the city of Kursk.
"Their preserves are not quite what we would call national parks," he said. "They're more like wildlife refuges, but . . . they don't have public recreation as a main function, so they don't have to have a lot of fancy visitor facilities. The preserves--and there are more than 130 of them--are considered to be scientific research stations."
Many of the preserves have been established to protect endangered species. According to Pryde, Soviet scientists have identified 70 endangered species in their country, including 21 mammals and 23 birds.
However, when concerns for endangered species conflict with economic development, development usually prevails. The Soviet Union lacks stringent legislation like this country's Endangered Species Act, which requires mitigation for any development that will affect important habitat. "There are laws that set up guidelines for development, but are they always carried out? I suspect the answer is no," said Pryde.