Broaden the mandate for nuclear safety

THE radioactive clouds from Chernobyl may yet have a silver lining. The initial knee-jerk reactions to the crisis -- denial in Moscow and indignation in the West -- were all too predictable, with ominous implications for what might happen in an accident involving a nuclear weapon instead of a civilian power reactor. But now as the smoke begins to clear, both sides are beginning to recognize that a different approach could benefit us all. Soviet officials, faced with an enormous political as well as human and economic disaster, finally brought top International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officers to Moscow for consultations, thus conceding that outsiders have a legitimate interest in the situation. Western leaders, for their part, have begun to look beyond short-term political advantage and to look to the long-term need to strengthen international standards for nuclear reactor safety and for timely warning and exchange of data in emergencies.

At times, even well-encrusted ideological perspectives must give way to the realities of national interest and global interdependence. The mixture of new technologies and old ways of thinking -- in this case traditional Russian xenophobia -- can prove volatile. In one blow, human error at Chernobyl multiplied the level of radioactivity throughout Europe, sent wheat prices soaring and utility stocks tumbling worldwide, and decimated the international credibility of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's new posture of openness.

These vulnerabilities imposed by new technology require far greater transparency and accountability -- even for superpowers -- than envisioned under traditional conceptions of national sovereignty.

It would be surprisingly easy to adapt existing international mechanisms to handle reporting of nuclear incidents and to bolster reactor safety. The IAEA, a smoothly functioning UN agency, has for decades quietly carried out its dual mandate: to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to safeguard peaceful facilities to verify that no nuclear material is diverted to weapons use. To meet its goals for safeguards, the agency regularly inspects civilian nuclear facilities throughout the world, including some in the Soviet Union.

The system works because most countries have recognized that the threat of the spread of nuclear weapons requires a new type of cooperation. On a week-long United Nations Association study visit at the IAEA's Vienna headquarters recently, we witnessed firsthand how experts from around the world are coping with the shared danger of proliferation with remarkably little political interference.

As the leaders of the Tokyo summit recognized, all nations would be better served by broadening the IAEA's mandate for nuclear safety. The agency has in place a voluntary incident-reporting arrangement and a voluntary system for safety review intended primarily to assist developing countries. It has published more than 3,000 pages of safety codes and guidelines, without a word of the political rhetoric all too often found in the publications of other UN agencies. The US participates in the incident-reporting arrangement, although the USSR does not but clearly should. To date, neither of the superpowers has taken advantage of the IAEA's Operational Safety and Review Team program, in which teams of agency experts spend two to three weeks reviewing safety at a nuclear facility on the request of the host country.

It is now time to give teeth to the IAEA's safety mechanisms, since the agency alone cannot force its members to accept safety procedures or inspections. At the next general conference of all IAEA member states in September, the member states should make compulsory the timely reporting of all nuclear accidents. The agency's safety standards should be widely adopted and backed up by spot inspections in all countries that have peaceful nuclear facilities. The US should set an example by inviting an IAEA safety review team to visit one of its peaceful facilities. The Soviet Union might well follow suit, since it turned first to the IAEA, with its combination of political neutrality and technical expertise, to visit Moscow for consultations on Chernobyl.

Such measures will require the sustained political and financial support of all the agency's member countries, paticularly the US. The Tokyo summit statement by Western leaders praising the IAEA is an important first step. Now it must be matched by sufficient financial backing to do the job right at a time when the US has slashed its funding of UN agencies across the board.

What is needed first is the development of a new East-West consensus on safety as well as on safeguards. In this sense the Chernobyl crisis may turn out to be a catalyst, a golden opportunity to encourage some new thinking in the places and on the issues where it is most needed.

Edward C. Luck is president of the United Nations Association of the US, a national membership and research organization, where Ann Florini is a project director.

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