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Nuclear accident in Siberia

PETER THOMPSON: While co-operation between Russia and the world scientific community has improved since the Chernobyl accident, there is still concern about the operating standards of Russian nuclear facilities. Dr Devra Lee Davis, an industrial and nuclear health specialist on the National Research Council of the US Academy of Sciences, says it is critical that Russia's facilities be subject to independent inspection.

Michael O'Regan asked Dr Davis about the difficulty of getting an accurate picture of the Russian nuclear industry.

DEVRA LEE DAVIS: On paper, the controls in Russia are among the most stringent in the world. They have standards that are very very high, that have been developed over a period of years. When it comes to actual practice with respect to measurements of the emissions, with respect to reactor safety, design and structure, they have an appalling record, and Chernobyl unfortunately, could have been the first of many such incidents that may occur, because of the decaying infrastructure and the inability to provide enforcement and monitoring of routine practices in these plants.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: So are we looking at a situation in Russia, where the standard, the operating standards of their nuclear installations, is just simply much worse than the international standard?

DEVRA LEE DAVIS: There is no question about it that the operating standards in the Soviet Union, former Soviet Union, are just not up to other countries in general.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Are there high rates of cancer among workers in Soviet nuclear installations that would indicate bad practices?

DEVRA LEE DAVIS: We do not even have hard evidence on that. We have anecdotal reports. We have some information, even after Chernobyl, that there is some illnesses that have been associated with both the population exposure. Certainly we know that many workers became seriously ill and died after Chernobyl, but when it comes to getting reliable data that we could use in much of the developed world, on Soviet health patterns, we simply don't have the information. It has not been made available to us, in general.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: Well, just concerning the information, there is a report in the international wire services that says a cloud of radioactive gas has passed over a portion of western Siberia, and yet also included in that report is that environmental agencies in Russia saying there is no danger from the cloud. Now, is that inconsistent?

DEVRA LEE DAVIS: It is not at this moment, inconsistent. It may be - not all radioactive releases are equal and it may really be the case that this release may not be nearly as substantial as Chernobyl. I have no way to know that yet, nor do we have any independent information. It is unfortunately, if one looks at the pattern, typical of these situations that people say, don't worry, there is no problem. Unfortunately, at this time in history, I think we all have a right to be very sceptical and to insist on independently verified information about the nature of the release and its movement through the air.

PETER THOMPSON: Dr Devra Lee Davis from the US Academy of Sciences in Washington.