Newspaper: The Evening Sentinel

Date: April 3, 1979

Title: If Nuclear Power is Here to Stay, It Must be Made Safer

Author: Max Lerner


NEW YORK CITY-We fear the dangers we must face. But we must also face the dangers we fear. In a world of growing dangers and fears that is the ultimate maturity.

Within this frame I can give only a mixed review of the drama of the leaking nuclear reactor at Harrisburg, Pa. It has been a double testing, not only of the operations of a nuclear power plant in a crisis but also of the public perception of that crisis.

FIRST, ABOUT the actual experience with nuclear power systems. The Union of Concerned Scientists says there have been more than a hundred instances of safety failures and violations in nuclear plants across the nation. To which a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission responds with a question: "Did anyone die?"

The fact is that no one did, but their response is not an answer. Not only may someone die, but many may die before the safety problems get ironed out. We know there is no fail-safe, error-proof mechanism in the operation of nuclear plants. We also know that thus far there have been no deaths either of plant workers or of the public anywhere. But the question is only in part about what did happen. It is also about what might happen.

Here the problem is one of prudence and responsibility. At Harrisburg the Metropolitan Edison managers of the plant seem to have fallen short on both counts. There was no adequate back-up system to take account of human error as well as mechanical malfunction. And there was a failure to notify the public immediately.

THESE ARE PROBLEMS of operation and control that can be solved. That is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's job. Earlier this year the commission shut down five East coast nuclear plants because of faulty design which exposed their cooling system to the hazard of earthquakes. The nuclear industry protested but the shutdown was clearly prudent. The commission will have to be no less rigorous in cracking down on the design and operation of power plants in the light of the Harrisburg mess.

What can be done beyond that? No knowledgeable critics call for a total ban on nuclear power. If they did they would have to provide an alternative, especially since solar energy is too far off on any effective scale. The alternative would be for the West to throw itself on the mercy of the OPEC nations, including Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Iran, whose potential oil boycott presents far greater hazards than the Harrisburg leaks.

The Michael Douglas film, "The China Syndrome," played a role in polarizing the wave of Harrisburg fear, even while it stands to reap windfall profits as a result. It is an instance of media luck and power in the workings of American capitalist democracy. Along with the more reasoned TV coverage of Harrisburg such a film can have a healthy effect in prodding the regulatory agencies and scaring the nuclear power industry into more stringent safety measures.

THAT IS BASICALLY what needs doing. Those who want all nuclear plants shut down until an error-proof way of running them is discovered fly in the face of reality. The best to hope for is to narrow the chances of accident to near zero, but that can be done by a tight regulation of the plants in action.

We live and have our being in a hazardous world. The dangers to health of chemical dumps, toxic sprays and polluted foods are probably greater than the chances of nuclear plant failure. We are doomed to live with extreme vigilance in a universe of danger and chance. An emotionally mature people will demand tighter safety standards but will react to the dangers without panic.