It Can Happen Here

Taking Note

IT'S TIME to stop pretending that we handle nuclear energy better than the Soviet Union does. It's also time to stop criticizing the U.S.S.R. for being so close-lipped about the Chernobyl crisis.

Why? Because our government was just as stingy with public information about Three Mile Island (TMI) as Moscow has been about its catastrophe. Because the U.S. government's attitude about reactor safety is just about as lax as we've been claiming Moscow's is. And because the same disaster could happen here--now.

Both the Administration and the media have condemned Moscow for its late disclosure of the accident and for its relative silence on its seriousness. But at the time of the TMI crisis, President Carter certainly wasn't letting us know how bad things were. While federal experts were predicting a hydrogen explosion, the President was telling Harrisburg residents that they weren't in great danger and that an evacuation would be "strictly a precautionary move."

Federal officials also tried to minimize the seriousness of the accident. After the crisis had ended, they claimed that "the system worked," arguing that no one was hurt at TMI because the safety system did its job.

The system didn't work. Investigations later showed that part of the problem at the nuclear site was the safety system--the control room was a jumble of buzzers and unlabelled or misleading indicators that actually kept the crew from figuring out what was wrong for three or four hours.

AND DON'T think that the U.S. told the public about potential dangers either. An earlier government report from Brookhaven National Laboratories, which was kept secret until a Freedom of Information Act request was filed, concluded that a major accident at a nuclear reactor slightly larger than TMI could "create a disaster area the size of Pennsylvania and could kill 45,000 people."

And the motives for keeping the TMI accident or reports of potential problems a secret? According to a statement by a Harvard economics professor in 1978, "if the development of nuclear power plants was halted, one of the most important aspects of Carter's energy program would be cut."

Jimmy Carter shouldn't be singled out. The attitude of the Reagan Administration has been even worse. Today, six years after so close a call as TMI, far too little has been done to improve safety--and it's the government's fault.

It's not as though we didn't intend to eliminate the safety problems. Immediately after the TMI disaster, a task force of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) developed a 600-page "TMI Action Plan," which outlined the major weaknesses in nuclear power plants in the U.S.--unreliable equipment, faculty backup cooling systems, insufficient operator training, poorly designed control rooms, inadequate data displays, etc. And to the NRC's credit, much progress has been made--in operator training, control rooms, pipe repairs.

But because of poor government support, too few of the necessary objectives have been met to date, including some of the problems that led to the TMI disaster.

AN EXAMPLE of this negligence, according to the former project manager of the NRC, Robert Pollard, is the plan for new vents in reactor cooling systems. If a reactor overheats, hydrogen bubbles or steam form in the cooling system and prevent the coolant from flowing to the core. This happened at TMI.

The vents allowed the bubbles to escape required manual operation. But after the accident no one could enter the building to open them because of the extreme heat. So the NRC task force afterward decided that remote control vents should be installed in all reactors.

The new vents were put in place by January 1981. Then they were to be installed by July 1982. Finally, the verdict changed to "necessary but unfeasible." The vents, just like dozens of other faulty parts, were never repaired.

Safety was let go, because closing the plants to perform the repairs was extremely expensive.

But the role of the Reagan White House also ensured that the safety measures wouldn't take place. According to Pollard, "Reagan's hope to accelerate nuclear energy development [was] a signal to the NRC that improvement of the plants is a low priority."

AMERICA HAS no ground for its holier-than-thou attitude toward Moscow. The government has been negligently lax about enforcing reactor safety in this country.

As for the criticisms of Russian standards and equipment, America has its own graphite-cooled reactor without a containment shell--it's in Hanford, Washington. American safety systems didn't prevent TMI from becoming a catastrophe like Chernobyl--we were just lucky.

It's easy and comforting to sit back, point accusing fingers, and rationalize why the same disaster could never happen here. But it can, and it almost did.

We must look at Chernobyl not with an air of superiority but with fearful resolve to improve our reactor safety standards, before a disaster leaves us counting the dead instead of arguing about them.