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
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
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. …