WHEN THE government of the Soviet Union wants advice on science and technology policy, it usually calls on committees composed entirely of scientists. And no wonder. If the decision to construct the reactor in Chernobyl had been made according to policies similar to those in the United States, think for a moment what might have happened:
Environmentalists would have pointed out that the reactor was to be located near the Dnepr-Teterev State Nature Preserve, a large wetland containing many water fowl, wild boar, roe deer and beaver.
A citizens group in Kiev would have disputed the wisdom of locating a nuclear power plant on a river leading directly into the Kiev Reservoir, the main source of the city's water supply.
Ukrainian nationalists would have underscored the fact that the area was first mentioned in the primary chronicle of medieval Kiev and has great historical significance. Within a short distance are several ancient churches.
Belorussian nationalists would have noted that the reactor would be only a few miles from the border with Belorussia, and they might have maintained that Belorussians were not being adequately consulted.
Peace activists might have asked for assurance that weapons-grade plutonium was not scheduled to be produced at the plant.
Representatives of thermal-electric and hydroelectric power stations would, no doubt, have testified that they could provide the same power at less human risk.
Economists would have said that no one is paying sufficient attention to cost-effectiveness.
From the standpoint of the Soviet leaders, fear of such debates is actually rational, for permitting them to rage fully would shatter the image of a unified populace that they wish to project to the outside world. Furthermore, the debates could easily begin to impinge on Soviet politics, forcing diversity.
Once lobbies representing environmental, nationalistic, religious and various political groups had fully developed, Soviet citizens might ask why votes in Soviet elections and discussions in parliamentary bodies didn't reflect the issues that so concern them. Faced with such a possibility, the Soviet government has refused to permit full discussions of dangerous technologies.
Many years ago, during the time of Stalin, it often was said that politics interfered with science much more in the Soviet Union than in the West. Oddly enough, one of the problems with science and technology in the Soviet Union today is that politics does not interfere enough -- the grass-roots politics of consumers' groups, environmentalists, and local communities.
Western societies are learning that science and technology are too important to be left to the scientists, the engineers, and the bureaucrats. The answers to the deep questions posed by genetic engineering, biomedical ethics, and nuclear power are not obvious, but it is becoming increasingly clear that resolving these questions must involve wide public participation because of the huge public risk.
The contrast between the way such issues are resolved in the Soviet Union and the United States is great, but there is no reason for smugness here. The story of the relationship between technology and society in the United States is also a painful one, as anyone who remembers open-air atomic testing, Times Beach, Love Canal, or Three Mile Island can attest. Public hearings about atomic power plants conducted by the old Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, were often charades, coming long after the important decisions to build had been made.
No one would maintain that the United States has found the answers to the questions of how to regulate technology or what the relationship between a democracy and the scientific-technical establishment should be. Scientists frequently express fear that the United States has gone too far toward regulation of scientific research. Industrialists worry that innovation is inhibited by excessive controls. Some consumer and environmentalist groups feel frustrated bybureacracies and industries that seem inert to human concerns.
Nonetheless, two important lessons have emerged from the recent history of dangerous technologies:
Governments need public assent to these technologies before they utilize them. If they do not gain such agreement, they will incur the wrath of the public when something goes wrong. One should not assume that the surface calm of the Soviet Union after Chernobyl means that anger is not present. Already, samizdat literature about the environment exists in the Soviet Union, and its volume and emotional intensity will increase in the wake of this accident.
We have learned that technical bureaucracies need to have their feet held to the fire by an alert public in order to increase safety. Environmental and consumers' groups are assets in Western societies, and would be to the Soviet Union if they were permitted to flourish there. Some of the wiser leaders in the Soviet Union are beginning to realize this, but they are correct in thinking that such groups cannot be given free rein without transforming Soviet politics.
Thus the dilemma of the Soviet leadership in the face of dangerous technologies deepens: The leaders need debate about these technologies in order to make the society safer, but they cannot get this debate without changing the existing political system.