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

November 03, 1991

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.

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