Chernobyl

About ten years ego physicist Alvin Weinberg, former director of the Oakridge National Laboratory told me that no one will really know how dangerous a nuclear power plant could be until a meltdown occurs. The disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine, at this writing, may come closer to giving Dr. Weinberg what he feared than any other atomic power accident to date.

We may never know the full range of this catastrophe in terms of short and long range radiation victims, the harm to the unborn and the extent of air, water, plant and animal contamination. The Soviet government has been super secret about its past nuclear accidents, including a radioactive waste dump explosion in the Urals twenty nine years ago that took hundreds of lives and denuded dozens of square miles of inhabited area. There are no freedom of information acts and no product liability suits in the Soviet Union. It is quite possible that the nearby population in Kiev and its surroundings may never be told of their peak and continuing radiation exposure.
Nonetheless, the Chernobyl accident will send traumatic shocks through the atomic power industries of many countries. Americans who live near nuclear power plants in the US will be asking tougher questions and demanding answers about evacuation plans, plant safeguards and the competency of plant personnel. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in Washington will think twice about further relaxing its safety standards and its safety inspections. As an agency treading toward greater secrecy, more exclusion of citizen groups from plant licensing hearings, and more Reagan-type deregulation, the NRC’s Commissioners may find the specters of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl more vivid reminders of their duties under the law.

For its part, the nuclear industry, which is presently promoting itself on your television screen, will start telling us about the difference between Soviet and United States atomic power safety standards. It is true that some Soviet reactors do not have containment vessels as do US reactors. but, the deadly meltdowns, the vulnerability of radioactive waste storage and other risks such as corrosion, operator error and earthquakes can materialize for any nuclear plant.

We need to remember how close the Browns Ferry fire in Alabama and the early Fermi Breeder Plant near Detroit came to catastrophe to name just two close calls.

The tragedy at Chernobyl provides a sad occasion to observe that no country with nuclear power can be an island unto itself. Radioactive releases from the out-of-control Soviet reactor are being measured in the air over numerous countries. The contamination will range beyond Soviet borders via plant and animal life for many years. The risk of cancer and genetic damage will increase.

In our country it is time for a broad public to take stock of the huge cost overruns, the frequent breakdowns and shutdowns and near-misses afflicting many of the 98 licensed nuclear plants and those in later stages of construction. The entire nuclear fuel cycle is fraught with potential disaster from the radon gas emanating from piles of uranium tailings out west 24 hours a day to the unsolved problem of what to do with the radioactive waste and worn out nuclear plants (average operation of 35 years) for thousands of years.

Given our many energy conservation opportunities and other ways to generate electricity efficiently, we should close down our nuclear plants. They supply under 4 percent of our nation’s total energy consumption — less than that supplied by wood. Our country should not tolerate one atomic power plant disaster and the huge area rendered uninhabitable.

Our sympathies must be extended to the afflicted people of the Chernobyl-Kiev region. Let us hope that their government will tell them the full truth daily.

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