LONDON—One of the starkest contrasts between the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl is in the type of scientific research that each has stimulated.

After Three Mile Island, reactor operators and regulators throughout the West reassessed the technology and the policies behind nuclear safety. Research in the wake of Chernobyl has focused instead on the environmental effect of the radionuclides released from the reactor.

Within a day after news of the accident, for example, the chairman of the British Central Electricity Generating Board, Lord Marshall, announced that the Chernobyl reactor was of a type unique to the Soviet Union and that there were no technical lessons to be learned from the accident. The same cannot be said, however, about the radioactive rain that fell upon western Europe.

The fallout revealed the primitive state of scientific understanding on the subject. There was confusion among the affected countries about the way...

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