Courtesy Reuters

Learning From Chernobyl

The accident last April at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant demonstrates that planning conducted at a national level alone cannot eliminate the risks posed to all nations by nuclear energy. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, an attitude of "business as usual" will not sustain the atomic power industry worldwide.

The scope of the challenge to make nuclear energy production safer is even greater than that shown by the well-known accidents at Chernobyl and the Three Mile Island plant in the United States. Between 1971 and August 1984, two "significant" and 149 "potentially significant" mishaps occurred in 14 industrial nations outside the two superpowers. Even aside from the danger of accidents, the normal operation of nuclear power plants presents problems. These include the management of materials—plutonium and weapons-grade enriched uranium—which could be diverted for non-peaceful use by nations and terrorists, and the possibility of sabotage and military attacks on power plants. The potential damage from such actions includes radiological consequences far worse than those witnessed in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident.

International institutions have not been oblivious to the challenges posed by the 382 commercial reactors presently operating in 26 countries. Emerging today are worldwide nuclear standards—albeit imperfectly applied—that attempt to treat each risk in a distinct manner. The Soviet accident and the international response it generated make this an opportune time to consider a more comprehensive approach.


At the time of the accident the Chernobyl energy complex consisted of four nuclear reactors, each producing 1,000 megawatts of electricity, and two additional reactors that were under construction. Situated on the Pripyat River, which feeds a reservoir of the Dneiper River above Kiev, Chernobyl is surrounded by an agricultural region that produces rye and dairy products. To the south is the Ukraine’s rich wheat belt. With the exception of Pripyat, a community of 49,000 built in the 1970s to accommodate construction workers and plant employees, and the town of Chernobyl, with 12,000 inhabitants, only villages with populations of 500 to 700 residents dot the nearby

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