Lessons of Chernobyl - heeded and unheeded

18.04.06

MOSCOW. (Academician Yevgeny Velikhov for RIA Novosti)


Now that 20 years have passed since the Chernobyl tragedy I would like to
express my opinion on certain things. It is very important to assess
Chernobyl correctly through the prism of real facts and risks. In many
cases, its aftermath was exaggerated hundreds and even thousands of times,
and not without a contribution of the press. This had adverse effects
because words are a factor, which seriously affects people's health. The
damage done to the economy and social life in a whole number of areas was
also associated with the wrong information and misjudgment.

The medical records of the exposed people do not confirm that Chernobyl had
a disastrous effect on their health. Here is an example from the statistics
of the Kurchatov Institute Medical Service: all of its 600 research fellows
who have regularly visited Chernobyl during these twenty years (and some of
whom are still there) have good health records and continue working.

Or take a different aspect: Chernobyl showed that the nation was not ready
for a disaster, although a similar case took place before. An explosion
followed by radioactive emission occurred at the Chelyabinsk Mayak Chemical
Plant in the Urals in 1957. The Soviet authorities instructed to classify
all information concerning the accident, including the analysis and
conclusions made by the best scientists and experts who had been studying
the causes and consequences of the accident at Mayak.

There is one more sad lesson: the priceless Chernobyl experience, which was
not classified, proved to be useless anyway. Nobody in the whole world has
asked for it, or tried to study. This is very bad because this experience is
extremely valuable. It can be used for modeling human conduct in an
emergency, or for special training. Regrettably, it is impossible to
completely rule out the risk of technological accidents at nuclear power
plants, although very much has been done to enhance the safety of atomic
power engineering in the years since Chernobyl. Nor can we ignore today's
political situation with its real threat of terrorism.

Even in Russia we do not keep the Chernobyl experience at hand, which would
be a reasonable thing to do. Only atomic scientists have learnt the
Chernobyl lessons really well. The RBMK reactors (the first type of the
Soviet reactor at nuclear power plants) were immediately upgraded and made
safe. They continue working successfully. Hence, it was possible to make
them reliable even before the tragedy, but a mistake was made. This was the
problem rather than the fault of the then young nuclear power engineering.
For lack of experience accidents at the first nuclear facilities took place
in other countries as well, not just here.

Although nothing is completely failsafe, today we guarantee the safety of
reactors. We also guarantee that even if an accident happens by virtue of
some incredible reason, it will not lead to evacuation or have any other
negative effects on the health and prosperity of the people involved.

In the last 10 years Russia has not built a single new nuclear power plant
but the generation of nuclear energy grew from 12% to 17% for this period.
This growth has been achieved by better control, modernization of nuclear
power plants, and a whole number of other factors. Natural resources - oil,
gas and coal -- are non-renewable, and the world's energy requirements are
growing. In this context nuclear power engineering has very good prospects
and no real competitors today. Further progress is simply impossible without
it.

Since the tragic day 20 years ago the physicists have been trying hard to
defeat radio phobia, and prove to the people that atomic power engineering
brings light and heat to their homes. Have they done all they could? The
drawbacks which this industry had, and some of which were revealed by
Chernobyl have been largely overcome. Nuclear power engineering has evolved
incredible safety measures. I'd call some of them even somewhat excessive.
In general, the experience amassed today by the physicists and designers,
and the high safety standards of nuclear power engineering guarantee that
accidents similar to Chernobyl will never repeat.

The likelihood of serious accidents at nuclear power plants is very low; it
is much lower than in mining or the chemical industry, or on regular
transport. Our phobia of nuclear power engineering is largely a prejudice.

Academician Yevgeny Velikhov, Russian Academy of Sciences, President of the
Kurchatov Institute Russian Research Center.-0-