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Western observer eases estimates of Chernobyl's economic toll

Economist Jan Vanous calls it good news. He says the ``economic consequences of the Chernobyl accident do not appear to be nearly as severe as was thought initially.'' Those in the West with a strong sense of rivalry with or fear of the Soviet Union may regard trouble there as a favorable development. But in this increasingly interlinked world, bad Soviet economic news brings both losses and benefits to the noncommunist world.

Dr. Vanous runs a consulting service that specializes in examining economic developments in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Here are his ``crude'' estimates of the costs of the Chernobyl tragedy:

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1. Direct costs -- including loss of the reactor, the cleanup operation, extra health care, lost agricultural output, relocation, and other costs -- will run between $2.7 billion and $4.3 billion. That amounts to some 0.25 percent to 0.39 percent of the Soviet gross national product, the total output of goods and services.

2. The Soviets also lose 4,000 megawatts of generating capacity in nuclear power for some time. There are four 1,000-MW plants at the Chernobyl site, one of which was destroyed in the accident.

The bulk of this will be offset by producing more electric power with coal and natural gas-fired power plants.

Low seasonal demand for electric power during the April-to-September period suggests that power shortages will not occur before October, Vanous figures.

Since the lost nuclear power is equivalent to 120,000 barrels of daily oil consumption, the Soviets will have less oil to export. Vanous reckons the reduction in exports will actually amount to only about 40,000 barrels a day, or $220 million annually.

3. The accident is likely to set back the ambitious Soviet nuclear power program.

Between 1970 and 1985, Soviet output of nuclear power increased at an average annual rate of 29.6 percent, from 3.5 billion kilowatt-hours in 1970 to 170.2 billion kwh. in 1985. Output of electric power from conventional thermal plans (oil, coal, or gas-fired) grew at an average annual rate of 4.2 percent in that period. The share of nuclear power in total electric power generated in the USSR increased from 0.5 percent in 1970 to 11 percent last year.

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(US nuclear power output last year amounted to 384 billion kwh., or 15.5 percent of total electricity generation.)

Vanous now suspects that growth in nuclear power will slow to an annual rate of 10 to 11 percent to the end of this decade.

That means the Soviet Union must use an extra 460,000 to 560,000 barrels of oil a day, or its equivalent in coal or gas, to meet its 1990 goals for electric power production. And, Vanous continues, net Soviet energy exports to all countries will be about 360,000 barrels a day lower in 1990 than they might have been under a scenario with no accident.

4. The loss of agricultural output is unlikely to exceed 0.5 to 1 percent of the Soviet total. That's because the bulk of the contamination involved an isotope of iodine that quickly loses its radioactivity.

Vanous calculates that at most, Soviet food imports from the West are likely to increase for the year by $500 million to $1 billion over what would have been imported otherwise.

From the standpoint of the West, if the Soviets do switch to more coal- or oil-fired plants, they will likely send more acid rain to Sweden and Finland. They may buy a modest additional amount of milk, butter, and feed grain. But if they have less oil to export for hard currency, they will probably restrain other imports from the West.

Alternatively, the Soviets could sell more than the 225 tons of gold they sold abroad in 1985 to get hard currency: Vanous guesses 275 to 300 tons this year. They might also sell more diamonds, lumber, some nonferrous metals, ammonia, and other natural-gas-based chemicals and fertilizers.

One remarkable fact about the Chernobyl power plants was their cheapness. A Soviet book published in 1985 puts the cost of the entire four plants at a remarkably cheap $1.4 billion. A single American plant may cost three times that or more.

That Chernobyl number, Dr. Vanous notes, includes no allowance for financial costs. Nor do these plants have containment vessels, which could easily add 20 percent or so to their cost. And the concrete foundation of the plants is apparently relatively weak.

Further, the Soviet plants are not subject to the regulatory and other delays that add hundreds of millions of dollars to nuclear power plant costs in the United States.

Richard Wilson, a physics professor at Harvard University, holds that one conclusion that can be drawn from the Chernobyl disaster was that the consequences of a major nuclear accident may be far less severe than what scientists had originally calculated.

Professor Wilson makes some rough calculations of the radiation loosed by the accident and resulting casualties, concluding that the US should not panic and delay or shut down nuclear power plants here.

So far the Soviets have reported 19 dead from the accident. There could be more. These are the first fatalities reported anywhere in the world from an operating accident at a commercial nuclear power plant.

Wilson notes that in the United States some 120 are killed each year in coal mining accidents. Thousands of miners experience ``black lung'' disease or other diseases the medical fraternity relates to mining.

Antinuclear-power forces have virtually shut down new construction of nuclear power plants in this country. There are 101 operable, 27 with construction permits, and 2 on order.

If Chernobyl prevents a reversal of that antinuclear mood in the nation and abroad, conventional plants will multiply, and, says Wilson, the nation may face more acid rain and other pollution, along with a greater possibility that carbon dioxide will cause a ``greenhouse effect'' on earth that could be even more disastrous.

No power generation method is entirely without some environmental or safety costs.

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