Fallout from Chernobyl

THE most serious nuclear power accident to date has occurred at the Chernobyl plant in the Soviet Ukraine. These points should be made: Moscow was lamentably irresponsible as a world citizen in failing to announce immediately and in detail what had happened. To fail to report the mishap until days later, after routine radiation checks on workers in Sweden, was to deprive the public in the Soviet Union and neighboring countries of the right to take simple precautions.

The Soviet Union was irresponsible, again as a world citizen, in failing to encase the Chernobyl reactor, and others like it, in a proper containment vessel to minimize a system failure. In nuclear matters, for energy or military uses, arguments of economy where adequate safety is concerned do not apply.

President Reagan should insist that peaceful nuclear energy standards be included in the next superpower summit agenda, as well as arms control, human rights, and third-world conflict issues. He was right to offer US technical and humanitarian aid. But Mr. Reagan should do more to highlight the need for universal standards for the design, siting, building, and operation of nuclear energy facilities.

The Chernobyl incident illustrates the arbitrariness, the misery, perpetuated by Moscow in the Iron Curtain's political division of East and West.

Where the environment is concerned, there is one world. Atmospheric currents, the earth's waters, are shared by all peoples. The Soviets have no right either to contaminate the shared environment or to hide what can and must be learned from the experience.

There will be other likely fallouts.

Within the Soviet Union, whatever rudimentary environmental movement exists should be given added life. The Soviets will have to learn from the Americans, the French, and others an improved approach to safety. In the United States, as much as 90 percent of the cost of new plants is attributable directly or indirectly to safety. Despite the protests over such safety requirements -- either from those who complain they unduly impede development, or from those who find them inadequately carried out or enforced -- such protests are the price of exploring a new technology with potentially grave consequences for the habitat. The Soviets should postpone their plans to double their nuclear power capacity within the next few years, albeit with plants of a different design than Chernobyl's, until international standards for safety and design are met.

Within other countries, a second look at nuclear expansion should be demanded. The glut of oil and gas worldwide permits such a hiatus.

In the US, where some 100 nuclear power plants are running and 30 more are to be finished in the next five years, the issues over many of the problem plants are largely resolved. But the industry is still troubled. The nuclear construction and regulatory system does not work well. An electric energy surplus will exist in most regions in the next decade. Utility companies are hardly encouraged toward expansion, given the long lead times, expense, unfavorable investment outlook, and now -- because of Chernobyl -- a resurgence of caution in political and antinuclear quarters.

The battle over nuclear power has been bitter. On one side are the ``soft'' energy advocates, a strong antinuclear coalition. On the other are those who argue no energy source is risk free.

Inside the USSR and out, the current period of low prices and oversupply in oil and gas is thought likely to increase energy demand. For the US, a $10-a-barrel price for oil could lead to a doubling of imports in five years, Data Resources Inc. estimates. Hence, Chernobyl's tragic cost in human suffering may not alter the underlying economic factors that encourage using nuclear power.

Nonetheless, policies and procedures should immediately be adopted to inform the world community promptly of nuclear mishaps and mistakes. The Soviet Union cannot be allowed to imagine it can impose a news and information blackout, and avoid remedial steps for its nuclear industry, as if it had no responsibility to its own peoples, the East bloc, or the rest of the world.

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