Eight months after we in Pennsylvania had confronted what then was known as the worst accident in the history of commercial nuclear power, I attempted to share some of the lessons of Three Mile Island with high-ranking Soviet energy officials in Moscow. If the attitude those officials displayed then has persisted over the years, it may well have contributed to the tragic events now unfolding at their power plant in Chernobyl.
In the United States at that time, the growing popular demand for substantial reform of our nuclear power plant safety standards and procedures was irresistible, and the reform movement was well under way. My meetings with those who were in charge of the Soviet program, by contrast, revealed a decidedly "pre-TMI" mentality in what, for most of the rest of the world, had become the "post-TMI" era.
The comments of Dzherman M. Gvishiani, who was deputy chairman of the Soviet Committee for Science and Technology, and of Fedor Ovchinnikov, the deputy minister of power and electrification, were especially disturbing. In a statement reminiscent of what we used to hear from industry and regulatory officials in the United States, Gvishiani told me and my party that safety was "a solved problem in the Soviet Union." He said that the Soviets had had no incidents like Three Mile Island (which their translator called "Five Kilometer Island") and that the problems raised by our experience had been "overdramatized." He acknowledged that Soviet nuclear reactors were not protected by the kind of containment structure that continues, to this very day, to keep TMI's radioactive contamination from escaping into our air, food and water in Pennsylvania, but he dismissed such precautions in America as a way to "calm people down."
Ovchinnikov, who was the Soviet Union's foremost expert on nuclear power plant safety at the time, reiterated, in a separate meeting, his government's lack of enthusiasm for containment buildings, noting that they "complicate the operating process." He conceded that, because of TMI, the Soviets did plan to add containment to future plants in his country as a way to localize the effect of any accident that might occur, but it was a grudging concession, and it did not apply, unfortunately, to Chernobyl (which was built about the same time as TMI).
Ovchinnikov was far more enthusiastic in his praise of Soviet facilities and training as superior to those in America. He quoted the head of his National Academy of Science as saying that Soviet reactors would "soon be so safe as to be installed in Red Square."
It was an observation that surely rings hollow today, for I find it impossible to believe that the smug self-confidence that characterized the Soviet energy community in 1979 has survived the terrible events at Chernobyl.
I do believe, however, that there was another major contributor to this tragedy -- one that clearly continues to haunt the Kremlin and one that continues to threaten the health and safety of the people living not only in the Soviet Union but in other nations as well. I refer to Soviet insistence on secrecy, censorship and international isolation.
Chernobyl might never have happened if the people of the Soviet Union had been as free to question their authorities following Three Mile Island as were the people of the United States. The open nature of our society made it impossible to suppress or ignore the many problems raised by TMI, and public and private citizens and institutions in this country quickly demanded a wide array of improvements industry-wide. The result was nearly 100 new safety requirements imposed since then on nuclear power plants throughout America.
Nothing like that appears to have happened in the Soviet Union, and the secrecy that may have contributed to the Chernobyl accident itself may also end up adding to its ultimate list of casualties.
I believe it is incumbent upon the Kremlin now to overcome its secretive inclinations and tell its own people, as well as the rest of the world, the whole truth about this accident. Those who live in the path of the radiation need to be made aware of the danger or lack of danger around them, so that they can make intelligent decisions involving their health, safety and, perhaps, their very lives.
I would emphasize that overstatement as well as understatement can constitute a hazard, for we were painfully aware during TMI that an unnecessary evacuation could have caused fatalities, just as surely as failure to order a necessary one.
Meanwhile, Soviet refusal to share the exact causes and nature of the Chernobyl accident with scientists and other experts throughout the world may well ensure its repeat, not only in other countries but in the Soviet Union itself.
In other words, whatever advantages the Soviet government may see in its closed and monolithic system under normal conditions, those advantages simply do not apply to a civilian nuclear emergency. It is in their best interest, as well as the world's, for the Soviets to work with the world in a good-faith effort to harness the hazards of nuclear power plants wherever they may be so that we can continue to realize their benefits.
The time has come, in fact, for the nations of the world to join together in the adoption of strong, enforceable, international nuclear power plant safety standards that would codify the lessons learned from accidents such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and provide the maximum assurance that they will not be repeated.
We can begin, as a world community, by offering all of the resources and expertise at our disposal to help the Soviet people deal with their emergency.
And the Soviet leadership can begin by lifting the veil of secrecy and isolation that may well have made the emergency inevitable.