THE Chernobyl accident has cost the Soviet Union billions of dollars and could cost thousands of lives, but it has not affected the way Moscow feels about nuclear power. Chernobyl, the Soviet government insists, was a failure of personnel, not of policy. Despite Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness), no articles have appeared in the Soviet press questioning the future of what Moscow calls ``the peaceful atom.''
``It was a calamity - but it was a good lesson,'' said Alexander Larchenko, deputy director of the Bilibino power station in the far northeast of the country. It forced the nuclear industry to make a complete overhaul of its security procedures, Mr. Larchenko says. ``There won't be any more nuclear accidents, at least in our country.''
Although many countries are reassessing the role nuclear power will play in their energy programs in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet Union is not. There are currently 50 commercial-size reactors in the Soviet Union, usually grouped four or six to a power station; and 15 more Soviet reactors will be operating by the end of the decade, according to Andrew Cruickshank of Nuclear Engineering International in London.
In mid-March, a Soviet official told journalists two new reactors would be built at Chernobyl. But an April 25 announcement said the reactors now would not be built, though reactor No. 3 would be restarted this year.
The Bilibino power station is being extended, and Alexander Zolotilin, its chief engineer, says that at least three more nuclear-power stations will be built in the northeast by the year 2000. These are considered vital for the mining of gold and other valuable minerals in the region.
The full human and financial cost of Chernobyl will perhaps never be calculated. Thirty-one Soviets died during or immediately after the accident. Predictions of the numbers who may eventually die because of radiation poisoning vary wildly. Robert Gale, an American bone-marrow specialist, said last February that the accident could cause 75,000 deaths worldwide over the next 50 years.
A report published in January by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that 10,000 people in other parts of Europe will die as a result of Chernobyl in the next 70 years. Soviet officials have recently produced much lower figures. Earlier this month the Ukrainian health minister, Nikolai Romanenko, told reporters that the amount of radiation emitted as a result of the accident was 15 times less than previously estimated, and would result in 200 to 600 deaths over an unspecified time span.
The financial cost of the disaster is still mounting. The Politburo announced in June 1986 that the initial cost of the accident was 2 billion rubles ($2.9 billion). A Soviet nuclear-power official, who requested anonymity, recently estimated that the final figure would be at least twice this amount. Much of the expense, the official said, would come in a major program of technical improvements and retraining.
No official estimate has been given for the size of this program, but it will probably run into many hundreds of millions of dollars, and will have a long-term impact on the economics of nuclear-energy production. Chief engineer Zolotilin and other officials at the Bilibino station noted, for example, that the price of building future nuclear stations and of producing energy from them will increase substantially. (A Soviet official was quoted last October as saying the accident could cause a 40 percent rise in the cost of building new plants.)
The changes at the Bilibino plant give an idea of the expense of increased safety. Additional security measures, Zolotilin told visiting journalists, will cost 3 million rubles ($4.68 million at official exchange rates) a year. The accident also speeded up the execution of a program to replace crucial parts of the station's machinery. The power station's pumps have been replaced, Zolotilin says. So have all four turbines, each costing 15 million rubles ($23.4 million).
The Soviets say that Chernobyl had little impact on agriculture. The Ukraine, the country's grain basket, once again had a disappointing harvest last year. Official discussions of this, however, tended to blame the Ukraine's planners - and indirectly the Ukraine's party boss, Vladimir Shcherbitsky.
More details of the cost may emerge when the trial of officials accused of negligence in connection with the accident opens in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Mr. Petrosyants told journalists last month that the trial would open soon, but refused to say when. He also declined to say who the defendants were. An official of the Soviet Supreme Court told the Monitor recently that the trial had been postponed because of the illness of one of the defendants. The official would give no details.
Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 (the one at which the accident happened) has since last November been buried in a ``sarcophagus'' of 7,000 tons of steel and 410,000 cubic meters of concrete. It has taken on the status of a symbol - and not an entirely negative one. In official Soviet eyes, it has joined the Challenger disaster as an example of the danger of combining advanced technology and human frailty - another argument, the Soviets feel, for the elimination of nuclear weapons. They do not, however, apply the same logic to peaceful nuclear energy. In fact, Soviet scientists say they hope eventually to convert their nuclear warheads into nuclear fuel.
Chernobyl has also become a symbol of Soviet heroism.
Alexander Larchenko, the deputy director of Bilibino power station, volunteered to work at Chernobyl immediately after the accident and was decorated for bravery. For him, the accident was both a tragedy and one of the most memorable times of his life. On the accident site, he recalls, ``people didn't argue; they didn't discuss, or complain. They had no more strength.''
Soon, Larchenko says, he is leaving Bilibino. He is going to the Ukraine to build another nuclear station.
A Chernobyl chronology
1977 The first 1,000-megawatt reactor at Chernobyl begins yielding commercial power.
1985 During the year, the four reactors at Chernobyl generate about 29 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, more than 10 percent of the total for all of the Ukraine.
1986 April 25: Engineers begin a test sequence that involves shutting down the No. 4 reactor. April 26: According to Soviet officials, the accident occurs at 1:23 a.m. as the result of a sudden power surge (nearly 100 times full power) on the No. 4 unit during the shutdown process. Radioactive emissions, driven by a strong updraft generated by the heat of a fire in the reactor, rise to at least 1,000 meters (3,200 feet). Firefighters risk their lives to battle the fire. The other three reactors are shut down. April 27: Soviet officials begin evacuation of first a 10-kilometer (6 mile) and later a 30-km (18 mile) radius around the plant. The total number of long-term evacuees eventually reaches 135,000. April 28: After unusually high radiation is detected by workers at a Swedish nuclear plant, the Soviet Union acknowledges the disaster has taken place. Later Soviet accounts put dangerous radioactive emissions at 50 megacuries, nearly 3 million times the 17 curies released at the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. April 30: Photos taken by US satellites show reactor No. 4 is still on fire. The Soviet Union releases a photo showing extensive damage to the roof of one of the reactor buildings. May 5: Low levels of radiation from the explosion are detected as far away as the West Coast of the United States. May 13: A Soviet official reports that shielding material has covered the reactor and that radioactive emissions have ceased. About 5,000 tons of material, including clay, sand bags, and lead shot, has been dropped by helicopters to form the shielding. A designer of the reactor says it will have to be sealed in concrete for hundreds of years. May 14: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in a televised address to the Soviet people, calls exaggerated reporting on the tragedy in the West an ``unrestrained anti-Soviet campaign.'' But he also thanks US doctors Robert Gale and Paul Terasaki for their assistance in treating those exposed to large doses of radiation. July 20: Article in Soviet newspaper Pravda blames personnel at the plant for the accident, citing ``gross violations of reactor operating rules.'' Mid-August: The death toll attributed to the disaster, mainly firefighters, reaches current total of 31. Sept. 29: Reactor No. 1 is reactivated and by Oct. 1 is producing electricity. Reactor No. 2 is reactivated shortly thereafter. Oct. 27: The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna adopts a ``Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident'' that binds nations to notify each other and the IAEA promptly in the event of a nuclear plant accident with international implications. The Soviet Union has signed the convention, along with 59 other countries.
Sources: Atomic Industrial Forum; National Geographic Society; Soviet Geography
How countries have responded Sweden
Although Sweden first sounded the Chernobyl alarm, opinion polls show public confidence in Sweden's own nuclear-power program has crept back up to pre-accident levels. Sweden, in any case, is committed to dismantling all nuclear power plants by 2010, although these now supply about half of the country's electricity.
Meanwhile, at least some members of Sweden's nuclear safety authorities are concerned about Ignalina, a nuclear plant in Soviet Lithuania, which appeared to be operating in excess of safe capacity shortly before the Chernobyl accident. Although they believe the plant has been shut down, they have no knowledge about its condition.
Sweden's semi-nomadic Lapps have fared better than originally anticipated. They have had to destroy less of the 1986 reindeer harvest due to radioactivity than expected, while the government has covered most of their economic losses. East bloc
In spite of the radioactive Chernobyl fallout, political fallout among the Soviets' contaminated allies has been almost nonexistent. No strong anti-nuclear protest movements have emerged in the region. None of the bloc governments has announced any plan to revise ambitious nuclear power programs.
``Chernobyl just didn't move people here much,'' says Jiri Hayek, a leader of Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 human-rights group. ``At first people discussed the health risk, but when they couldn't see or feel anything, they forgot about it.''
``Nuclear power means challenging the Soviet Union, which helps us build the reactors,'' explains Ivan Baba, a leader of the Danube Blue group, the largest independent ecologist group in Eastern Europe. ``If we want to exist, we must avoid criticism of such a subject,'' he observes. France
In France, 47 nuclear power plants supply about 70 percent of the country's electricity. By the next decade, that figure is expected to rise to 80 percent.
The Chernobyl accident did not alter these plans or raise public questions about them.
Now, attitudes may be changing. New opinion polls show that a third of French citizens oppose nuclear power. Many of the questions are economic. With oil prices low, nuclear power has become expensive. For this reason, construction has slowed from four reactors annually in the early 1980s to a single one this year. China
Few other issues have stirred up Hong Kong as much as Peking's decision last year to build the Daya Bay nuclear power plant only 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the city. It produced a petition with over 1 million signatures calling for the abandonment of the project - a direct result of the Chernobyl accident. But China faces severe energy shortages. The government's commitment to nuclear energy has not waivered, although it has had to cut back on ambitious plans to construct a series of nuclear plants because of a lack of funds.
China's first nuclear power plant of 300 megawatts is expected to come on line in 1989 at Qinshan near Shanghai. The plant is wholly owned and constructed by the Chinese, though it uses some foreign technology. The larger, 1,800 megawatt-facility at Daya Bay near Hong Kong, being built by Framatome of France, is scheduled to begin operation in 1991. Additional reactor projects are expected in the 1990s. West Germany
In West Germany, the Chernobyl accident added weight to mounting public opposition to nuclear power. A poll by the German Atomic Forum last year showed 34 percent in favor of closing down all nuclear plants (up from 16 percent in 1984. Only 6 percent were in favor of further expansion of nuclear power. Some analysts think no new atomic plants will be built in this century beyond four now under construction.
West Germany had planned on generating half its electricity with fission power by 1990. (In northern Germany, around Hamburg, 70 percent of the electricity is atomic.) Now there is fierce political polarization. Opposition parties would abandon nuclear power. Even the government seems less enthusiastic about it.
So West Germany is rethinking its energy strategy. The government would like to go ahead with a high-temperature reactor and with a six-nation breeder-reactor project. But the main shift in future energy plans will be more emphasis on coal, in spite of high costs and pollution problems. Great Britain
In spite of strong opposition, Britain is going ahead with nuclear power, which already meets some 20 percent of electricity needs. The Thatcher government has accepted the recommendation of a major study to use an American-designed pressurized water reactor (PWR). The Central Electricity Generating Board expects all new generating capacity installed through the end of the century to be equally divided between nuclear and coal-fired stations. However, that may depend on a Tory victory in the next election. All opposition parties have pledged to scrap the PWR program. Japan
In Japan, where nuclear plants supplied 26 percent of the electricity and 8 percent of total energy consumed in 1985, current plans call for aggressive atomic power growth. Government projections envision nuclear plants will supply 35 percent of the country's electricity by 1995. In all, a recent planning report envisions construction of 100 new atomic power stations by the year 2030. United States
The atom supplies about 17 percent of the electricity in the US, where electricity, itself, accounts for 35 percent of the total energy consumed. This, according to a recent Department of Energy report to the president, is why nuclear power has a ``key role'' to play in US energy security strategy. Nevertheless, the nuclear power industry remains in a slump with no new orders for plants and with widespread public skepticism about safety.
Reports of lax management practices at nuclear power stations - including operators caught napping - have reinforced that skepticism. The consensus within the industry itself is that the future of nuclear power in the US depends on a restoration of public confidence. And that, in turn, depends on highly visible and effective measures to tighten up safety standards and operating procedures. This roundup was compiled from reports by Monitor staff writers Julian Baum in Peking, Robert Cowen in Boston, William Echikson in Paris, Elizabeth Pond in Bonn, and contributor Juris Kaza in Sweden.
Tomorrow: Are new reactor designs the answer?