Twenty years ago Wednesday, the world experienced its worst nuclear accident. In the early morning of April 26, 1986, a steam explosion blew the top off one of the Soviet-designed reactors at Chernobyl, Ukraine. The resulting fire burned for nine days and released massive amounts of radioactivity into the environment.
Traditionally, 20 years represent a human generation. As the nuclear industry is gearing up for regeneration after decades of little growth in power plant construction, this is a perfect time to take stock of Chernobyl’s lessons.
In 1986, the nightmares of the nuclear age were disastrous reactor accidents, thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, and nuclear terrorism. Today, while the first threat has greatly diminished, the other threats have grown and demand urgent action.
Despite the Soviet Union’s demise almost 15 years ago, the US and Russia still maintain thousands of nuclear warheads ready to launch at each other. Recent improvements to the US arsenal aimed at achieving nuclear dominance are stimulating Russia to increase its spending on nuclear weapons. As a result, both sides are raising the likelihood of nuclear war, whether intentional or accidental. Moscow and Washington should renew arms-control talks to work toward soon reducing their stockpiles below 1,000 warheads.
For this reason, the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident provides a timely reminder for what can go wrong without careful safety planning.
The Chernobyl accident spurred dramatic improvements in reactor safety. Reeling from the accident, the nuclear industry quickly formed a peer review group called the World Association of Nuclear Operators. WANO has done extensive safety examinations of nuclear plants worldwide.
Industry should now build on the success of WANO to address security and proliferation problems. It should form a peer review organization to assess and improve the security of nuclear plants against attack or sabotage. Such an organization would identify best security practices and then perform comprehensive and confidential security reviews of all nuclear reactors.
Once needed security improvements are identified, the question becomes who will pay for the work. Of course, industry wants to minimize security costs to maximize profits. But there is also a growing realization among industry officials that an act of nuclear terrorism would likely torpedo the nuclear power renaissance under way in the US and other parts of the world.
The increasing menace of proliferation also threatens regeneration of nuclear power. Iran exemplifies a country that is exploiting a loophole in the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty to acquire “peaceful” nuclear technologies to build up a latent capacity for making nuclear bombs. Some in industry are waking up to the notion that nuclear proliferation is bad for business.
Industry should position itself at the forefront of advocating for greater use of proliferation-resistant technologies. These technologies should be integrated into future nuclear facilities in order to raise the barriers to diversion of nuclear materials into weapons programs. Iran, for example, could serve as a test bed for development of proliferation-resistant technologies.
An industry-sponsored peer review group should also critically examine claims made by the US government about the purported proliferation-resistant benefits of new nuclear initiatives. In particular, earlier this year, the Bush administration launched the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which intends to recycle plutonium, a bomb-usable material, from spent commercial nuclear fuel. While the administration contends that its proposed recycling method is proliferation resistant, independent scientists have raised serious concerns that the recycled plutonium could be vulnerable to theft by criminals or terrorists.
In working to improve security of nuclear facilities and safeguards against proliferation, industry should leverage the assets of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In addition to being the world’s nuclear proliferation watchdog, the IAEA has programs to evaluate the physical security of nuclear facilities and to provide training to security personnel.
However, the IAEA is understaffed and underfunded. Presently, 650 IAEA inspectors guard against illicit activities in 900 nuclear facilities around the world. In comparison, Walt Disney World employs more than 1,000 security personnel to protect its amusement park. The IAEA’s total annual budget is only about $120 million, and for the next few years, the IAEA has annually budgeted a much smaller amount, $15.5 million, to pay for nuclear security assistance work in dozens of countries. The US and other countries should increase this budget to ensure that the IAEA has adequate funds to prevent nuclear proliferation and improve security.
The legacy of Chernobyl should teach industry and government that they should seize the opportunity now to take proactive steps to enhance security and prevent proliferation to pave the way for the next generation of nuclear power.