Letters To The Editor Atomic Forum Reply: Chernobyl Comparisons 'Useless'

Posted: May 27, 1986

The true message of Chernobyl is that nuclear energy, like commercial air travel, chemistry and other needed technology in the late 20th century, demands careful implementation by dedicated professionals.

We still do not know exactly what touched off the tragic chain of events in the Ukraine. The mystery will not be solved until Soviet authorities complete their investigation and make the findings public.

But we do know that the Chernobyl reactor is sufficiently different from our own to make the blanket indictment handed down by The Inquirer's May 13 editorial unconscionable. Consider the facts:

* Because Soviet reactors are so different from our own, an accident here on the scenario of the one in the Ukraine would be impossible. To compare the two for purposes of instruction is useless.

* The official attitudes of the two governments toward public safety are radically different. The Soviets stated that the Chernobyl reactor did not have the kind of secondary containment structure found on Western reactors. But beyond secondary containment, safety analysis consists of a long chain of possible breakdown sequences and a careful look at how these potential problems are to be dealt with. The U.S. approach to reactor safety rigorously follows this principle. We don't know what principles the Soviets follow.

* Nuclear safety in this country is an open book. The calculations that underlie safety decisions are available to the public. Endless hearings, commentary and public disclosure accompany not only each decision to build a power plant but decisions as to how that plant will be made safe. There is no way any rational person could compare our open system with that of the Soviet Union.

More than seven years ago the United States had its own nuclear scare when Unit 2 at Three Mile Island underwent a partial meltdown due to a combination of mechanical shortcomings and operator error. That accident, though nonfatal, led to a series of far-reaching reforms ranging from hardware upgrading to improvements in the way utilities and their regulators conduct the nation's nuclear business.

By the standards set in your editorial, not only nuclear energy but practically every other technological endeavor would have to be considered ''too risky." Not a single element of modern living comes with ''irrevocable guarantees."

Nuclear energy is a fact of 20th-century life, in the United States as well as around the world. It will be a major source of energy in the 21st century.

To try to make the atom go away can only serve to divert attention from the real task, which is to ensure that there will be enough energy to go around and that nuclear energy will remain the safest form of electrical generation in the United States.

Paul Turner

Atomic Industrial Forum

Washington.

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