THE Soviet Union's nuclear disaster has rekindled concern over the safety of US nuclear reactors. Can it happen here? Does the radioactive cloud from Kiev carry a prophetic warning, or is it unfair to tar our own nuclear industry with the Russians' mistakes?
Before the Chernobyl disaster, we polled 1,000 leading scientists and engineers, randomly selected from Who's Who listings, to find out what the experts think about nuclear safety in this country.
The result was a surprising thumbs-up consensus. The experts endorse the safety of US nuclear plants by about a 6-to-1 margin. Over 3 out of 4 believe the technology is well enough understood to solve any problems that may arise. Two out of 3 would live near a nuclear reactor themselves. A majority favors rapid nuclear development and does not consider the consequences of reactor accidents a ``very serious'' problem.
If the experts are so supportive of nuclear power, why does the public consistently show such unease? Part of the answer lies in the channels of communication between scientists and the public.
Antinuclear scientists are much more willing than others to go public with their views. In fact, we found that antinuclear scientists are less likely than others to write for academic journals but much more likely to write popular articles on science policy.
The public, meanwhile, seems more willing to listen to antinuclear rather than pro-nuclear messages. We analyzed major coverage of nuclear safety issues from 1970 through 1983. During that period, antinuclear stories outnumbered pro-nuclear stories 2 to 1 on network TV and in the leading newsmagazines. Moreover, 60 percent of judgments printed or broadcast about specific safety issues have been negative. This negative coverage preceded Three Mile Island but increased afterward. And, among all ``experts'' cited in news stories, critics outnumbered supporters of nuclear power by more than 2 to 1 in newsmagazines and 5 to 1 on TV.
Thus, the press reports an ``experts' view'' of the industry in sharp conflict with experts' actual views.
This pattern seems to be holding steady. Last year's ABC documentary ``The Fire Unleashed,'' for example, attributed a score of cancer fatalities to the Three Mile Island accident, a scientifically implausible claim rejected by several independent expert commissions.
So it is not surprising that the nightly newscasts are again featuring longtime nuclear critics like US Rep. Edward Markey and Daniel Ford, spokesman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Nor is it surprising that such critics equate safety conditions in the United States with those of the USSR. It would be much more surprising, however, if such voices speak for a majority of the energy community.
The fallout from Chernobyl should not cloud our judgment about the prospects of nuclear safety in the US. As the media try to sort out the lessons of this event, we hope they lend an ear to the experts.
S. Robert Lichter teaches political science at George Washington University; Stanley Rothman teaches government at Smith College.