Nuclear Lessons for Today ; the Legacy of Chernobyl Stresses the Importance of Security and Nonproliferation

Article excerpt

Twenty years ago Wednesday, the world experienced its worst nuclear accident. In the early morning of April 26, 1986, a steam explosion blew the top off one of the Soviet-designed reactors at Chernobyl, Ukraine. The resulting fire burned for nine days and released massive amounts of radioactivity into the environment.

Traditionally, 20 years represent a human generation. As the nuclear industry is gearing up for regeneration after decades of little growth in power plant construction, this is a perfect time to take stock of Chernobyl's lessons.

In 1986, the nightmares of the nuclear age were disastrous reactor accidents, thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, and nuclear terrorism. Today, while the first threat has greatly diminished, the other threats have grown and demand urgent action.

Despite the Soviet Union's demise almost 15 years ago, the US and Russia still maintain thousands of nuclear warheads ready to launch at each other. Recent improvements to the US arsenal aimed at achieving nuclear dominance are stimulating Russia to increase its spending on nuclear weapons. As a result, both sides are raising the likelihood of nuclear war, whether intentional or accidental. Moscow and Washington should renew arms-control talks to work toward soon reducing their stockpiles below 1,000 warheads.

For this reason, the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident provides a timely reminder for what can go wrong without careful safety planning.

The Chernobyl accident spurred dramatic improvements in reactor safety. Reeling from the accident, the nuclear industry quickly formed a peer review group called the World Association of Nuclear Operators. WANO has done extensive safety examinations of nuclear plants worldwide.

Industry should now build on the success of WANO to address security and proliferation problems. It should form a peer review organization to assess and improve the security of nuclear plants against attack or sabotage. Such an organization would identify best security practices and then perform comprehensive and confidential security reviews of all nuclear reactors.

Once needed security improvements are identified, the question becomes who will pay for the work. Of course, industry wants to minimize security costs to maximize profits. But there is also a growing realization among industry officials that an act of nuclear terrorism would likely torpedo the nuclear power renaissance under way in the US and other parts of the world.

The increasing menace of proliferation also threatens regeneration of nuclear power. Iran exemplifies a country that is exploiting a loophole in the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty to acquire "peaceful" nuclear technologies to build up a latent capacity for making nuclear bombs. …