When the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Ukraine exploded and caught fire in April, 1986, it set off a chain of events that severely jolted the international nuclear
power industry. The accident killed at least 30 people, raised global radioactivity levels—and increased the level of public opposition to nuclear power plants. As a result, construction of several new plants quickly came to a halt in Europe. In response to the concerns, nuclear industry representatives from 31 countries—including Canada—met in Moscow last week and took steps aimed at preventing further disasters by setting up the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) to ease the exchange of information about nuclear power plants. Experts at the meeting said that Chernobyl might have been avoided if Soviet operators had known details of an accident at a British plutonium production plant 30 years earlier. Britain’s Lord Walter Marshall, who was elected association chairman, told the meeting that the nuclear industry had learned “these lessons in a very painful way.”
During the two-day meeting at a convention centre in Moscow, delegates representing 138 power utilities that operate over 400 nuclear power plants around the world signed a charter setting up the association. Under the new organization, power utilities will eventually be required to exchange information through regional centres in Atlanta, Paris, Tokyo and Moscow. The association was given immediate access to a computer network operated by the United States’ Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) in Atlanta, which was set up in 1979 following the near-meltdown at the reactor at Three Mile Island, Pa., and includes utilities companies from 14 countries, including Canada. Said Rayburn Doucett, chairman of the New Brunswick Power Commission, which operates a nuclear power plant on the Bay of Fundy at Point Lepreau: “It took Three Mile Island for INPO to be set up and Chernobyl for WANO to be set up.”
Under the new association’s rules, nuclear power plant operators will be required to transmit information on accidents or the discovery of defective equipment within five days and provide detailed information within 12 weeks. “This is not meant to be a firefighting organiza-
tion,” said Ontario Hydro chairman and president Robert Franklin, who will act as chairman of the association’s Atlanta-based regional centre. “There is not much chance of the same chain of events happening within a few days of
each other at two different plants.” Added Claude Boivin, president and chief operating officer for Montreal-based Hydro-Québec, who attended the Moscow talks: “There is no point in sending out information in a rush that might be wrong.”
Still, industry experts said that lessons learned from nuclear accidents could help to prevent other mishaps. Indeed, Lord Marshall said that the cause of the Chernobyl accident was similar to the chain of events leading up to the fire at the Windscale plutonium production reactor in northern England in 1957. Both accidents were caused by human error and both had graphite fires that burned out of control.
Despite the formal commitment by members of the new association to exchange information, some observers said that Soviet officials
might continue to be secretive. Soviet officials did not confirm that the Chernobyl accident had occurred until two days later—after Swedish officials reported increased radioactivity. Last month, on the third anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, the Soviet press accused Soviet officials of routinely withholding information on nuclear energy accidents. Boris Paton, president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, told the Soviet daily newspaper Izvestiya, “We cannot obtain information about atomic and conventional energy, breakage of equipment which causes material damage, losses of human life, and even about the catastrophic pollution of the environment.” But Nikolai Lukonin, the Soviet minister of atomic energy, told delegates that, under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost
(openness), “we have nothing to hide.”
For their part, Canadian delegates pointed to the Soviet Union’s eagerness to hold the association’s inaugural meeting in Moscow as evidence of Soviet commitment to the program. As well, Ontario Hydro’s Franklin suggested that members of the new organization could benefit from learning about each other’s operating techniques. Said Franklin: “We hope
to get Eastern Bloc nuclear power plant operators to come and work in plants in Canada for a month.” If the association is successful, the new spirit of nuclear co-operation could improve the safety of nuclear plants, while enhancing the image of an industry that has been battered over the years by a series of frightening mishaps.
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