Lessons Learned From Chernobyl, Fukushima

There lessons to draw from the nuclear disaster last month in Japan and the one 25 years ago in Ukraine. Nuclear energy expert Matthew Bunn, of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, talks to Steve Inskeep about things that need to be improved.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now let's follow up on a different kind of disaster: the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant 25 years ago. Yesterday, we heard from people living near that plant. Today, we will compare that event to Japan's nuclear disaster.

Matthew Bunn has been thinking about the lessons to draw from both. He's a professor at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Let me just begin by mentioning that both of these disasters were rated a seven on the nuclear accident scale, which is the highest rating you can get. But we're told they weren't really the same scale. What does that mean?

Professor MATTHEW BUNN (Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard): Well, Chernobyl was really a very different story, in part because of the horrible way that the Soviet Union kept it secret and mismanaged the crisis.

They didn't evacuate people in a timely way. They denied that the accident was occurring and that radiation was being released. And they didn't tell children not to drink contaminated milk or eat contaminated food.

And as a result, all sorts of things happened that probably won't happen from Fukushima. And in particular, some 6,000 cases of childhood thyroid cancer that could easily have been avoided if those children hadn't eaten the contaminated food, and so on.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you're suggesting that a big key in this is not just the kind of nuclear disaster you have, but the response to it. You can have these two incidents, they both rank a seven, one of them is horrible, but the other one is catastrophic on an entirely different scale.

Prof. BUNN: I think that's right. The legacy of Chernobyl, in part, is a very much strengthened global effort on nuclear safety. But what Fukushima has told is that while we have made these reactors a great deal safer - and nuclear reactors are just dramatically safer today than they were in the era of Chernobyl still, the emergency response when there is a major problem is clearly not where it needs to be.

INSKEEP: Is there any consensus emerging about one thing that ought to happen in light of the recent disaster?

Prof. BUNN: Well, I think it may be too soon to say there's a consensus. But I think there are several pretty clear lessons. One is reactors need to be better prepared for the possibility of losing power. And there are some relatively simple things that can be done. For example, mobile diesel generators that could be brought to a site quickly.

I think it's also clear that we need a better way to manage spent nuclear fuel. I believe that a key lesson is that you need to go beyond the operator and get more independent and ideally international peer review of both the safety and the security arrangements at these sites. So I am of the view that every country that operates a major nuclear facility needs to request an independent international team to come and review the safety and to come and review the security arrangements for that site.

INSKEEP: How good a conversation is there internationally among nuclear experts, given that this is a field where countries feel very secretive sometimes and are very proprietary about what they're doing?

Prof. BUNN: Well, it's a different story for safety than it is for security, and it's a better story for safety. We do have, in the International Atomic Energy Agency, standards for nuclear safety that are not mandatory. Countries don't have to implement those standards, but almost all countries do seek to implement the IAEA standards. And you also have peer review services offered by the IAEA. However, they're entirely voluntary, and most nuclear reactors have never had an IAEA peer review of their safety arrangements.

INSKEEP: Most nuclear reactors around the world?

Prof. BUNN: Have never had an IAEA review. Now, in the security space, the situation is much worse because the secrecy is much greater. The vast majority of the nuclear facilities in the world have never been reviewed by anybody outside their own country for the security arrangements that are in place. And, you know, one senior U.S. official describing the nuclear facilities he'd been to around the world said that the majority of them were quote "frightening," unquote.

INSKEEP: Matthew Bunn of Harvard. Thanks very much.

Prof. BUNN: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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