WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Bob Graham and Joe Lieberman were on one side of a long table. The expert witnesses were on the other side. Between them lay an ominous question: Is the former Soviet Union likely to experience another Chernobyl disaster?
The witnesses were of one mind. The answer is yes. It could happen at any time.
The two senators, Graham of Florida and Lieberman of Connecticut, served as a subcommittee on July 22. For nearly three hours they heard some grimly sobering commentary from experts on nuclear power.
This is the situation. On April 26, 1986, an explosion ripped apart the No. 4 reactor at the Ukrainian generating plant in Chernobyl. For the next four years the Soviet Union covered up the consequences. Moscow insisted that only 24 -- sometimes 34 -- persons had died. Only 209 cases of illness had occurred.
Since the collapse of the communist empire, the world has learned a good deal more. At least 7,000 persons, most of them clean-up workers, are believed to have died of nuclear radiation. Ukrainian doctors have reported three times the usual number of thyroid cancer cases among children.
Other disturbing reports involve miscarriages and genetic malformations. Because the medical data were collected inconsistently, under different protocols, exact figures cannot be confidently cited, but the radiation damage, especially to children, is severe. The Dnieper River, water supply for 35 million persons, is contaminated. Some cropland is still too hot to be cultivated. The consequences no longer can be concealed. This was indeed a disaster.
The doomed Chernobyl reactor was of a design known to engineers as RBMK. The design, said one witness, is ''inherently very poor.'' Another witness called it ''hopeless.'' It should be emphasized, thankfully, that RBMK reactors operate only in the former Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe. There are none at all in the United States or in other Western nations.
But 57 remain in operation in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe. They cannot be shut down. Their electric power is vitally important to the struggling nations. In Lithuania and Hungary, half the electric power comes from nuclear plants. Ukraine, Belarus and others lack the capital or borrowing power to build new plants or to substitute gas turbines for the unsafe nuclear fuel.
Murray Feshbach of Georgetown University told the subcommittee that the hazard affects not only the CIS and Eastern Europe, but also the Far East, Canada and the United States. The remaining reactors ''are potential accidents waiting to happen.''
The situation is extremely dangerous. Immediately after the explosion, clean-up crews dumped 5,000 tons of sand, clay and lead on the site. In the months that followed, another 14,000 tons were piled upon the plant. The material formed a lavalike sarcophagus over 400,000 pounds of nuclear fuel.
The sarcophagus is deteriorating rapidly. Birds, insects and animals live and feed within the sarcophagus and carry radioactive material beyond the building. Radioactive releases vary with the weather. Edward Purvis III of Los Alamos, a nuclear engineer, found it encouraging that natural processes of decay have reduced levels of released radiation to 15 to 20 percent of the original levels.
But, he added:
''Twenty percent of an awful lot is still an awful lot.''
Some things can be done. On July 2, the Senate voted for an
amendment to the energy appropriation bill. Sponsored by Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., the amendment commits the United States to providing immediate technical assistance in the field of nuclear safety.
Much of the Chernobyl disaster resulted from operational errors by employees who had not been trained to the rigorous standards of safety required in the United States. It will not cost a great deal to improve their training. Security could be significantly enhanced, said Senator Wallop, simply by getting plant supervisors to lock some key doors.
At this remote distance, it is hard to imagine another Chernobyl. Nuclear plants within the United States have achieved a virtually perfect safety record. Nuclear-powered ships have performed superbly. There is no reason to worry about a Chernobyl disaster here.
The whole world has reason to worry about another Chernobyl there.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.