Today is the anniversary of the world's most serious nuclear power-plant accident, at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union.
Chernobyl attracted worldwide attention for several reasons, including a concern for the immediate and long-term biomedical consequences of the accident, uncertainty regarding the future of nuclear energy and implications for its non-peaceful uses. Chernobyl also focused attention on the apparent changes in the attitudes of Soviet leaders and on the future of Soviet-American relations.
First let us consider the biomedical consequences: 500 individuals were hospitalized immediately following the accident; 31 died; the remaining 469 recovered or are now home; only five have required continued medical care. This low death toll reflects several factors, including the ability of modern medical interventions to prevent death during transient bone marrow failure induced by radiation. Under these circumstances, humans can recover from considerably higher doses of radiation than was previously believed.
But what of the long-term biomedical consequences? There is reasonable agreement among experts, including the U.S. Department of Energy and the International Atomic Energy Agency, that over the next 50 years radioactivity released at Chernobyl (which was 10% to 50% of that released by atmospheric testing of nuclear devices) will result in 2,500 to 75,000 excess cancer deaths, up to 1,000 excess cases of severe mental retardation and up to 5,000 excess cases of genetic disorders. Interestingly (and surprisingly), almost 60% of these cases are projected to occur outside the Soviet Union, predominately in Europe but also in the United States and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.
Although these data are of considerable concern, on average they represent less than 0.1% increases over spontaneous incidences. Also, some of these adverse consequences would be moderated if there were successful advances in cancer prevention or treatment or in early identification of individuals at risk. Recent progress in manipulating the immune system with molecularly cloned growth factors is one such example as we move toward a cure for cancer. Undoubtedly, others would evolve if Soviet-American collaboration in cancer research were to increase.
There are several important lessons from these tragic events. First, like it or not, we live in a nuclear age. Regardless of America's strategy regarding nuclear energy, most countries in the world--countries lacking our wealth and resources--will expand their use of nuclear energy over the next 10 to 50 years. Second, nuclear energy is an international technology. As indicated, more than 50% of the cancers caused by Chernobyl will occur outside the Soviet Union. The full impact of this fact may not impress Americans until they consider the potential consequences of similar accidents in Canada or Mexico.
What is the conclusion? Should we stop the use of nuclear energy immediately? Unfortunately, the answer is not simple. Each form of energy--fossil fuels, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar and others--has its unique risks and benefits. Each nation must consider these and other factors in the context of its resources, national goals and political commitments. For example, the Soviet government will increase its use of nuclear energy fivefold over the next 20 years. Extensive nuclear programs are also under way in France, Japan and Britain.
In democracies such as the United States, the fate of nuclear energy will be decided by the people; this is as it should be. In order to accomplish this objective, however, it is necessary to have an informed public that understands the complexity of the issues under consideration. The events at Chernobyl indicate how little most people and many scientists understand about nuclear energy. This must be corrected, ideally at the school level, if we are to vote intelligently on the important issues that face us in the next decades. What is also certain is that the United States needs a long-term energy policy determined by a careful evaluation of our energy requirements, alternative potential sources of energy and consideration of risk-benefit ratios--and not solely by political or economic factors.
One of the most important lessons of Chernobyl should be the potential consequences of the non-peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The magnitude of radiation released at Chernobyl was relatively small compared to even the most limited use of nuclear weapons. It might be necessary to multiply the health consequences by ten-, a hundred-, or even a thousandfold to gain some sense of the potential consequences of a large-scale nuclear exchange.
As with many modern technologies, nuclear energy is not inherently good or evil. The atom can work for us or end civilization as we know it. The answer lies not in the technology but in its use.