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What’s too much risk in government regulation? Chernobyl should be a teachable moment

Dolls lie scattered on a dirty floor of a long unused kindergarten in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, which housed the workforce three miles from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. In the foreground is the Izvestiya newspaper with Soviet government slogans referring to approaching May Day celebrations. Pripyat was evacuated 36 hours after an explosion in reactor No. 4 on April 26, 1986.
Dolls lie scattered on a dirty floor of a long unused kindergarten in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, which housed the workforce three miles from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. In the foreground is the Izvestiya newspaper with Soviet government slogans referring to approaching May Day celebrations. Pripyat was evacuated 36 hours after an explosion in reactor No. 4 on April 26, 1986. 2000 Associated Press file photo

Adam Higginbotham’s book “Midnight in Chernobyl” and an HBO miniseries on Chernobyl, Ukraine, have brought to light the nuclear power plant disaster that took place 33 years ago. Interestingly, the way the bureaucrats of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics dealt with the catastrophic risk is precisely the opposite of how United States bureaucrats deal with it. How each group handles risk is affected by whether or not they “own” the risks.

The “socialism” of the USSR refers to the state owning the means of production. In this case, the USSR owned the nuclear power plants in Chernobyl when Ukraine was still a satellite state.

The explosion that blew up Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor was the most devastating nuclear accident in history. Directly, there were 62 documented deaths amongst exposed workers and first responders. For comparison, there were no deaths from the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania 40 years ago or the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011.

As Higginbotham explains, that plant’s director and local KGB officers took measures to explain that there were “no radioactive releases” to “prevent the spread of panic-mongering, provocative rumors and other negative manifestations.” They did not evacuate the people of the surrounding cities because, as Deputy Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers Boris Shcherbina said, “How are you going to evacuate all these people? We’ll be humiliated in front of the whole world.”

Because the Soviet government owned both the risk and the results of the accident, it was only after satellite photos revealed the disaster that the evacuation took place.

The situation is different in the United States, a market-driven economy. With the exception of the Tennessee Valley Authority, energy production — just like most goods and services — is privately owned. Most goods and services, however, are regulated by the U.S. government as well as state and local authorities. Private companies own the risks; regulatory agencies just set the rules for production.

This makes the incentives different. Rather than pretending risks are nonexistent or small, U.S. agencies are conservative — sometimes even too careful — by overestimating risks. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, acknowledges this when it states that it seeks to ensure “that risk is not likely to be underestimated.”

High levels of exposure to ionizing radiation are, without question, extremely dangerous. Meanwhile, multiple studies have shown that lower levels are not only safe, but can actually be beneficial to our health. So, where the Soviets publicly undervalued the risks from lethal exposures to radiation, U.S. regulatory agencies overplay the risks of low doses. We should seek to improve our system, but be grateful it’s not the alternative.

For example, the EPA sets a “dangerous” level of exposure to indoor radon gas at 4 picocuries per liter of air, where studies indicate a threshold of between 8 and 27. In fact, evolutionary biologists tell us that ionizing radiation was key for the evolution of life on our planet. As damaging as it can be in high doses, without it, there would be no life on earth.

There is another big difference between Soviet and U.S. bureaucracies: who pays to mitigate the risks. At Chernobyl, paying for safety came out of the state budget, which resulted in fewer controls. In the U.S., regulators don’t pay for the regulations they pass — consumers and owners do. Fortunately, there are private incentives to reduce risk here. Otherwise, firms fall victim to lawsuits and lost business.

Ultimately, the Chernobyl incident contributed to the fall of the Soviet government. People no longer believed in a Soviet socialist system where government controls both production and safety. While we clearly have problems with our regulatory system, we should be aware of the lessons from Chernobyl as we contemplate government ownership of different industries.

Richard Williams is a senior affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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