Pushing for cooperation on nuclear accidents

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the wake of Chernobyl, the world's nations are moving toward agreement to notify and help each other in case of nuclear accident. Under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency, experts will meet in Vienna next month to draft two conventions on information and mutual assistance. With unusual speed these are then slated to be presented for international approval at the IAEA general conference in September.

The man steering all this is Hans Blix, the Swedish director of the IAEA. In a telephone interview, Mr. Blix discussed decisions the IAEA board made last week about international cooperation. He also anticipated presentation of the Soviet analysis of Chernobyl at the IAEA post-accident review conference in August. And he offered a general primer of the Chernobyl nuclear accident and its consequences. The abridged interview follows:

Has enough time elapsed since Chernobyl to see it in perspective?

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One needs more solid information before we can put it into perspective and see what is the scope of the accident. We know fairly well what the consequences are outside the Soviet Union; they are certainly considerable in terms of inconvenience and costs, in terms of various types of foods and restrictions on people's activities -- but not in terms of health.

Inside the Soviet Union it is clear that now there are between 20 and 30 people dead from the accident, and we do not yet know the number of people who have been affected by radiation and with what doses. Nor do we know the exact areas of land that have been contaminated and for how long. We therefore think that the post- accident review that we will hold here in Vienna the 25th of August will be an interesting and important meeting.

Presumably one would hope to get then the Soviet analysis of the actual cause of the accident.

Yes. Of course I think that even now, it is important not to lose the sense of proportion vis-`a-vis other accidents and keep in mind that an accident like the Bhopal one [the chemical leak in 1984] in India affecting the chemical industry killed over 2,000 people and injured many others, and that an accident like [the 1976 chemical gas leak in] Seveso in Italy also contaminated land for a long time.

Another major question, I assume, will be the exact amount of radiation and the amount of the reactor fuel core that actually escaped. The Soviets are saying 1 to 3 percent, and Western experts are estimating 10 percent.

Yes.

Is it proper to speak of this accident as a meltdown or not?

It depends what definition one has. It is clear that the uranium fuel melted inside the fuel rods, and it's also clear that this melt never made its way down through the bottom of the reactor. So one cannot talk about a ``melt-through.'' [There was no] ``China syndrome.''

Is that also what happened at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania?

Yes, that's right.

Has Chernobyl had a strong impact on experts' evaluation?

I do not think one can really say that this changes their views about the need and justification for nuclear power. The probability analysis that has been made about the risks of accident [in US and West German reports about Western-type reactors] indicates very low likelihood of nuclear accident. The experts of course will ask themselves, what is the real scope of the accident, and how does it compare with other major industrial accidents in the world? And what are your alternatives to nuclear power?

If you are saying no to further nuclear [expansion], it means more coal. And even with the current means of purifying emissions, you will have a great deal of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide contributing to [dying forests], to acid lakes, decayed cities, [disease]. No one energy is without risks; we'll have to weigh them against each other.

How do you see the evolution of the IAEA's role in nuclear safety at this point?

First of all, the Board of Governors has decided that in July and early August of this year we will have a conference of government experts to try to draft two agreements. One is on early notification, [or early warning of any nuclear accident or other event that could cause radioactive releases across frontiers.] The other is a convention on coordination of emergency assistance in case of an accident. If they are ready, then we will submit these two agreements for approval by our general conference in September.

The second point will be the post-accident review that begins the 25th of August. And of course that will probably come up with a number of ideas as to what one should do further by way of international cooperation to strengthen safety. And then there will be a special session of our general conference at a high level Sept. 24 to 26.

There are several interesting features being discussed here. One is the idea of an international regime of nuclear safety. We have already about 60 volumes of recommendations on nuclear safety from siting to the operation of the plant. They are all optional. Some countries think that maybe some of the rules relating to vital security systems should be transformed into minimum safety standards to be accepted and be binding for everybody.

Then there is the question whether there could be more of an international insight into the safety of nuclear plants. We have a system now, under which the agency sends missions called ``operational safety review teams'' to nuclear plants at the invitation of governments.

If member states don't want to inaugurate a compulsory system of international safety inspection -- and I don't think they will do that -- this system would be capable of a pragmatic expansion simply by the device that governments will ask for more of the missions. And I see that as a very promising avenue.

Could you give other examples of what standards might include? Is there a revival of interest in systems that would automatically shut down when particular problems arise?

Yes, our draft program suggests more international discussion of engineering devices which would reduce the consequences of an accident if it occurs. Our reasoning is that the risk of a major accident in the first place is very low. However, even though it is low we must have engineering devices which practically exclude release of radioactivity.

Of course the containment buildings which are common in the West and also being increasingly used in the East are one such device. In the case of the Three Mile Island it was quite important, because the radioactivity stayed within the container.

But there are other such devices, like special so-called recombiners, that prevent hydrogen from forming and thereby creating a risk of an explosion. And there are the type of filters which the Swedes have built near the Barseb"ack plant, which would enable you -- in case of an overpressure of radioactivity inside the containment -- to vent it and let the radioactivity be caught in the filter either of coal or of sand and gravel.

Have you found a growing interest on the part of the Soviet Union in international cooperation and standards since Chernobyl?

Yes, definitely. When we went to Moscow at their invitation, our primary aim was to discuss with them the international cooperation that they might be willing to participate in after Chernobyl. I think the discussions we held there were very helpful to all concerned to clarify what may be done by way of international cooperation.

The Russians have always felt at home in this agency, like the Americans. It's the safeguard institution, of course, that they've been particularly interested in, to prevent proliferation. But they have also generally been at home.

How about the question of including military or mixed civilian-military reactors in inspections?

That has never been a question, no. The question has been whether in this agreement on early warning [it should also be obligatory for a country to give notice of] an accident or a potential release from a military facility. Of course for a neighbor it's immaterial whether the radioactivity comes from a military source or a civilian source. However, the owner of the military source may be reluctant to give various types of information concerning the source -- its location, or facility designs, or what not. I personally of course consider it would be desirable that this be covered, because for a lamb that is being devoured by a lion, it doesn't matter whether the lion is aggressive or not.

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