Russia's 'Three Mile Island'?

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Here's a scenario to please Jane Fonda. Imagine a nuclear power station with a fast (breeder) reactor cooled by hot ( 500 degrees C.) liquid sodium. Suddenly a fire breaks out in a room, threatening the cooling system. If that lets go, there could be a sodium explosion spreading radioactive debris over the region. Firefighters can't control the blaze, and several of them die in the attempt. Everything that can burn, does burn. Fortunately, the sodium does not escape. But the government had special trains and buses standing by to evacuate the area. The cause was "human error." The crew on duty had been drunk.

Sound like the opening of "China Syndrome II?" Well it happened a year ago New Year's Eve in the Soviet Union, according to an underground account smuggled out and reported recently in Nature.

Such reports slipped out of the secretive Soviet society are hard to verify -- as in the somewhat better-documented case of an explosion that spread radioactive material in the vicinity of Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains in 1957. Although known to Western intelligence and nuclear power agencies, information on this latter catastrophe didn't surface publicly until about three years ago when an exiled Soviet biologist, Zhores A. Medvedev, brought it to light. Even now, some Western experts express doubts about the event.

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In the present case, the alleged accident occurred at the Beloyarsk nuclear power station, also in the Urals, about 60 kilometers from Sverdlovsk. According to the report, local people are convinced that an accident did indeed happen and that drunkenness played a significant role, even though the findings of the official investigation were never released. That's not much to go on. It just raises suspicions.

What this uncertain report does point up is that major nuclear power programs outside the United States can be so surrounded by secrecy that dangerous incidents could be completely hidden or their true seriousness minimized. This is true in countries other than the Soviet Union. Tony Benn, Britain's former secretary of state for energy, for example, has complained that information on leaks of radioactive material from Britain's Windscale nuclear reprocessing facility was withheld from him by the bureaucracy, even though he was the responsible Cabinet minister at the time. He learned about them first from news reports." Such cover-ups by Britain's nuclear bureaucrats, who operate as a "state within a state," are typical, he says.

The agonizing detail with which last year's Three Mile Island accident has been publicly probed typifies a unique freedom of nuclear information in the United States. American nuclear critics may feel that even more candor is needed. But nowhere else are the pitfalls of nuclear power more open to public view.

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