When Soviet First Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was here in June for a Warsaw Pact meeting, he told his East Bloc allies that the world needs a new emergency information and response system for dealing with nuclear plant accidents.
He should talk, Mr. Gorbachev's comrades thought. It was his government, recently avowed to "openness," that waited for days to tell its neighbors and allies about the radioactive fallout from the accident at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine.The Warsaw Pact's Hungarian hosts greeted Mr. Gorbachev's proposal with typical underground humor: "Question: Why is Russia's Great October Socialist Revolution celebrated on Nov. 7th? Answer: It took Tass (the Soviet news agency) that long to report it."
Indeed, if the reporting of reactor mishaps is not improved, the public's anxiety about nuclear power, and the trust they can place in their officials, will further erode confidence in this already troubled energy source - one many countries know they can't do without.
One prompt way to help assure the public they are being kept informed is to open a worldwide emergency information center. The most likely place for this is the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria. The IAEA was the center of attention in late August when the Soviet Union gave a week-long briefing on the Chernobyl accident.
An important first step would be for the IAEA to agree on common terminology for describing nuclear plant accidents. Mariners throughout the world know that a "gale" has winds of 34 to 47 knots, a "storm" 48 to 63 knots and a "hurricane" 64 knots and above. But today each country defines nuclear "incidents" and "accidents" and "emergencies" in different ways, making warnings potentially more confusing than helpful.
Beyond a global nuclear information center, a second, longer-term proposal could have lasting effect on public perceptions of nuclear power. A little- known but very influential study center just outside Vienna, the International Institute for Advanced Systems Analysis, is one of the few places in the world today where scientists from both the East and the West work together effectively. There they deal with common scientific problems - such as trans- boundary air pollution and long-term global climate change caused by fossil-fuel combustion and other industrial activities.
While Mr. Gorbachev was in Budapest calling for a better way to publicize nuclear accidents, scientists from several countries were meeting at the IIASA to propose a new international study on risk-assessment techniques for better understanding nuclear power plant operations.
Most important for the public's understanding is a part of the proposed IIASA study that will assess perceptions of risks and benefits associated with nuclear power. For, unless the public's perceptions of nuclear power - pro and con - are addressed in terms common, the nuclear-power debate will only degenerate further into political and economic confusion.
Thus, at the IIASA the physical and social sciences can focus on one of the most important policy questions of this century: the future of nuclear power. In the process, scientists from East and West can share their information, exposing Soviet nuclear science to concerns that have been common in the West for decades.
Clearly, if reluctantly, Secretary Gorbachev has recognized the need to warn the public about nuclear accidents. The IIASA study will also force the Soviets to answer questions they have kept to themselves. In a cavalier way the Soviets have not built concrete containment buildings over their reactors, to block accidental radioactive releases. They have built plants in or near cities. And they have dismissed as unnecessary emergency evacuation plans.
Undoubtedly Mr. Gorbachev's secretive behavior after the Chernobyl accident had a profoundly negative effect on nuclear enterprise elsewhere in the world. But it was not an exclusively "Eastern" problem. While the Chernobyl accident was occurring, government ministers in West Germany kept silent when one of their reactors released small amounts of radioactivity - hardly a reassuring example when this cover-up came to light.
But with studies like that being developed at the IIASA, at least there remains an opportunity to square the fate of nuclear power with both the needs and the concerns of the public: a public that must both pay for - and benefit
from - this unique energy source.