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Chernobyl and the West

April marked the 10th anniversary of Chernobyl, an accident that seared the world's consciousness. In a split second, presumptions that catastrophic nuclear accidents couldn't happen were thrown asunder as operator errors and an inherently unstable reactor design combined to ignite an explosion that shattered the core of Chernobyl Unit 4. The radioactive debris that lifted high into the night sky splashed across Scandinavia, then into the heart of Europe before upper-level winds carried it across the Northern Hemisphere into the United States.

At least 31 people perished in the immediate aftermath, but in the decade that followed, some tens of thousands of people may have died. Ukraine alone allocates some 5 percent of its gross national product to the disaster's consequences; in Belarus the figure stands at 15 percent. The accident may cost that small country over $230 billion.

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With Chernobyl's consequences so vast, one would expect the international community to mount a major effort to prevent repetition. The response, unfortunately, has fallen far short. Much assistance has been promised; little has been actually delivered. Those funds provided have been largely allocated to studies, conferences, and workshops. The investment in hardware fixes has been largely symbolic.

For example, the General Accounting Office reported in 1994 that US nuclear-safety equipment and products delivered to countries operating Soviet-design reactors totaled a meager $3 million. The largest single item of "nuclear-safety hardware" provided was fire trucks to Bulgaria, worth $500,000.

This is hardly a serious effort. After all, if Chernobyl taught us anything, it is that nuclear risks are global. A reactor that explodes in Ukraine affects not just Ukraine, but much of Western Europe and beyond. In short, the West has been fiddling while another Chernobyl gets ready to burn.

The reason is elementary: The reactors cannot be fixed. Fifteen Chernobyl-like plants operate across the former Soviet Union. The design is inherently unstable. The remaining 40-plus plants, which more closely resemble the West's light-water reactors, all have design and manufacturing defects that keep the facilities below international standards, themselves suspect. The departure of many of the best operators due to poor or no pay makes many reactor operations even more problematic than before. These factors contribute to an approximately 1 in 5 chance that a serious incident involving a reactor core will take place in the decade ahead, based on probabilistic safety assessments.

What should be done? Attention should be paid to the huge amount of energy the former Soviet Union wastes. Many former Soviet states use several times more power for each unit of output or consumption than Western counterparts. Such measures as metering electrical consumption, installing compact fluorescent lights and insulation, turning factory motors off when not in use, and placing valves on radiators can conserve the equivalent of energy produced by entire reactors.

The West should sponsor energy-efficiency showcases. Demonstration of the potential for conservation to dramatically reduce energy consumption would allow for closure of many of the most dangerous reactors. To bridge the gap between the current risky situation and a future based on safer energy technologies, the West could export electricity from Western Europe by interconnecting the grid.

Will we get serious about addressing the risk of another Chernobyl? The alternative is to continue to muddle along, hoping that Chernobyl II doesn't happen - and that is no alternative at all.