THE ST. PETERSBURG nuclear reactor that sprang a leak Tuesday is but the tip of the iceberg. As many as 40 potential Chernobyls are waiting to happen in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe.
By the time this nuclear nightmare catches the world's attention, it may be too late to prevent a catastrophe that could do irreparable human, economic and environmental damage. Without an international rescue operation, the risks can only accelerate.
Warnings about this danger come not from antinuclear activists but from leaders of the nuclear industry, which would be a primary victim of new Chernobyls. Percy Barnevik, president of ABB Brown Boveri, one of the world's principal nuclear contractors, says many plants are so unsafe they should be shut immediately.
All of the 60 nuclear reactors in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe have safety problems that have been building for many years. Assessments by the International Atomic Energy Agency show that 26 have "serious" safety deficiencies and 14 have "considerable" ones. The agency is technically advising members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Community about rectifying this situation.
A February 1992 energy agency study of the first generation of Soviet-designed pressurized reactors operating in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Russia says they have "serious safety deficiencies." While an urgent safety program is under way, four units at Kozlodui, Bulgaria, continue to operate despite acute risks. Similar programs are required in all the affected plants, and some, perhaps most, should be shut permanently.
In many, the risks are becoming increasingly acute. The morale of management and workers has been destroyed by a lack of clear government policy and support, uncertainty about their futures, a lack of incentives and suitable training as well as shortages of funds, spare parts and supplies. All this has led to a serious deterioration in operating and maintenance performances in plants that already are accident-prone because of design and construction flaws.
The governments, aware of the problems, are faced with a Hobson's choice in dealing with them. Shutting the plants would deprive the countries of energy that is critical to weakened economies. Alternative sources of energy would require foreign exchange they do not have and additional capital investment they cannot afford. Replacing the plants with a new generation of safer reactors or rebuilding them to meet acceptable safety standards would require billions of dollars; at a minimum, it would take the rest of this decade to replace or rebuild the plants.
The only alternative is a large-scale rescue operation by the international community, which could not come at a worse time. Countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development feel severe economic constraints and are particularly resistant to new demands on their resources.
Is St. Petersburg the new Chernobyl? That remains to be seen. But we should not wait for a disaster before we act. What is needed is an international commission to work with each country and the atomic energy agency. Its first task should be to evaluate the most dangerous safety problems and insure that proper resources are immediately mobilized to alleviate these risks.
The commission should weigh the opportunities to meet short-term needs arising from shutting down the plants or interrupting energy supplies. The commission should then evaluate long-term needs, including non-nuclear alternatives as well as measures to improve vastly inefficient energy systems -- particularly in transportation and heavy industry.
Developing countries would be deeply concerned that such an international rescue program not divert financial resources they urgently need to build their economies on an environmentally sound basis and carry out the decisions of the Earth summit meeting in Rio de Janeiro in June.
While this potential crisis is pushing itself onto the world agenda at an inconvenient time, it cannot be ignored. The costs of acting now to prevent or contain a new environmental disaster will be far less than the costs of letting it happen.
Maurice Strong is secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which is to be held in Brazil.