Experts from 10 countries are expected to hold a secret meeting here later this month to find ways of dealing with a nuclear crisis like the Three Mile Island accident, it was learned today.
One proposal that will be discussed is creation of a global roster of experts who could be dispatched rapidly as part of an International Atomic Energy Agency crisis team to accidents at nuclear power stations in countries such as Pakistan or Brazil.
The decision to call a two-day meeting to plan ways of significantly expanding the Agency's nuclear safety role came after officials here concluded that only a handful of countries have the capacity to deal with a crisis on the scale of Three Mile Island on their own.
"Not many countries have the resources the United States was able to immediately put up to eliminate the consequences of such an accident," Dr. Sigvard Eklund, director general of the Agency, said in an interview. He declined to disclose details of the meeting.
At present, he conceded, the IAEA has "only a very tiny system" for offering assistance to a country attempting to deal with a nuclear accident.
"We have a few staff members on call to assist and a minor amount of instruments and equipment," Eklund said. "But these would not be of any significance in a major accident like the one in Harrisburg. I think some kind of new system should be set up."
The proposal for an international crisis team is thus expected to be at the top of the agenda when 10 experts from 10 countries meet here to discuss ways to beef up the Agency's safety programs. While neither the date of the meeting nor the names of the participants have been disclosed, sources said the U.S. representative will be Floyd Culler, head of the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.
The purpose of keeping the meeting secret is to limit publicity on such a sensitive topic.
The concept being discussed for dealing with major crises, according to the international body's top safety expert, Morris Rosen, would be to have staff members and outside experts on call in various countries ready to respond rapidly to an emergency.
While hundreds of technical experts were brought into Harrisburg from all over the United States to aid in bringing the Three Mile Island situation under control, Rosen said the IAEA felt that "the number of people involved was probably larger than necessary.
"In a developing country, you might be able to do the job with 50 good people," Rosen said.
Rosen conceded, however, that even after a crisis plan is worked out, it still will be difficult for the IAEA to provide fast, effective assistance to countries in the event of nuclear emergencies.
"You're talking about long distances, communication problems and language problems," Rosen said. "I think you can get a reasonable system, but it will always be some sort of question mark."
As a result, the experts would also consider safety measures that the Agency can take to minimize the chances of future nuclear accidents.
One area expected to receive particular attention at the Vienna meeting is the training of control-room operators for atomic power stations.
The level of training given operators around the world varies widely. While international experts generally rate a training of U.S. control-room operators as "good," many suggest that operators in British and West German plants are probably more competent. The training of operators in most developing countries, on the other hand, openly worries nuclear experts.
Eklund suggested today that the IAEA hopes to work toward establishment of a higher "common denominator" for nuclear power plant operators.
"I think we have got to get member states to accept a higher common standard of safety," Eklund said.
Rosen, too, said he felt that "the entire concept of operator training is going to change" following the Three Mile Island accident.
For one thing, he suggested that every nuclear power plant should have a reactor simulator "so the operators can constantly be trained." There are only a handful of simulators in operation today in the United States, and some countries with nuclear power plants do not have a single simulator.
Rosen also suggested that control room operations should be less automated, so operators are constantly kept on their toes.
"If you sit and do nothing, it's dull," Rosen said. "I think the lesson is that they've got to be thinking. There have been suggestions that they go through required checklists several times a shift, taking data physical by pencil and paper instead of reading it from a computer."
In the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, Eklund expressed optimism that as a result of both actions by individual countries and the IAEA, nuclear power plants will operate more safely than they had before.
"I am sure reactors in the future will operate on a safer basis than before Harrisburg," he said.
Rosen suggested, however, that the ultimate lesson of Harrisburg is that organizations like the IAEA must plan for accidents that had largely been thought unthinkable before.
"The fable that accidents can be prevented in nuclear power plants has now disappeared," Rosen said. "This one occurred. There is no way to ever say again that you can design a system that will not have a serious accident."