I buttonholed Dr. Andranik Petrosyants, head of the U.S.S.R. State Committee on Atomic Energy, after he signed a protocol a few days ago on cooperation in atomic energy with the United States and asked him about the future of the Soviet nuclear energy program.
Mr. Petrosyants met with U.S. specialists in Moscow for about a week prior to the signing. Not surprisingly, the Chernobyl tragedy and the safety of nuclear reactors became a key part of the Soviet-U.S. talks here, although this was not on the original agenda. There exists a U.S.-U.S.S.R. joint committee on the peaceful uses of atomic energy, and the Moscow meeting was its first in nearly 10 years.Here is the question I put to Mr. Petrosyants: "In light of the Chernobyl accident, will the Soviet Union go full speed ahead with its atomic energy development plans?"
His reply: "Our principal plan is to develop nuclear energy in the future. Of course, the lessons of Chernobyl will be there, and we have drawn a number of scientific, technical and organizational conclusions. He added: "We should promote the further expansion of nuclear energy in the Soviet Union, and we are approaching this subject strictly, seriously and attentively.
No doubt the Kremlin has learned and is learning a good deal about the Chernobyl accident. The Soviets can never be smug on the matter of safety at atomic power plants again. Sadly, it has taken death and injury to focus attention on the need for maximum safeguards in the use of atomic energy.
Mr. Petrosyants said he's personally visited the Chernobyl atomic power plant after the accident in April.
The Soviets say the large populated cities outside Chernobyl, such as Kiev, which is 80 miles to the south, are free from contamination and that school children who were evacuated are returning in time for the opening of school on Sept. 1.
The 1986 U.S.S.R. yearbook, for instance, says in a section on atomic energy that, "it would be difficult to find any other industry with such stringent safeguards in all its mechanical processes, from making the steel for the reactors to actual plant operation.
Mr. Petrosyants said shortly after the Chernobyl accident that it had hurt the Soviet nuclear power program. But national priority is apparently still attached to the Soviet atomic industry because of future energy needs. Dr. Anatoly Alexandrov, head of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, has cited the importance of advanced nuclear reactors in the future Soviet energy program, particularly in the years 1995-2015.
Was it human error or design faults that caused the Chernobyl accident?
The Soviets say the accident at the four-reactor Chernobyl station was caused almost entirely by human mistakes. They say six major violations of safety occurred and that if any one of them had not, the accident could have been avoided. Western scientists have voiced a growing skepticism that the accident was entirely due to human failure.
In any case, Mr. Petrosyants said recently that Moscow may reconsider the location of atomic power plants near big cities in light of Chernobyl. It is reported the Soviets may also make design changes in nuclear reactors, to increase the built-in safety features.
Speaking on safety measures, Mr. Petrosyants said the U.S.S.R. was preparing a list of international safeguards at atomic power stations. He said it was extremely important that international norms and operating instructions be worked out to improve the reliability and safety of these power plants.
The Soviets later submitted a report to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which stresses safety at atomic energy installations. The Soviets support two proposals for IAEA member countries regarding safety. One is obligatory notification of nuclear accidents no matter where these occur. The other is rendering help to countries in case of atomic power station accidents.
Some Western observers feel that international cooperation, such as the Soviet-U.S. protocol on atomic energy signed in Moscow, will help prevent new tragedies in those countries that use atomic energy for producing electricity and heat. That the Soviets are discussing their own internal problems with outsiders is an excellent sign that they are serious about preventing another occurrence of a Chernobyl incident.