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How Many Chernobyls Before We Get It?

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

First published in Truthout

Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, a massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated northeast Japan, killing and injuring thousands of people and crippling the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant. Though the likelihood of this catastrophic event was known, the plant was not designed to withstand the massive tsunami that disabled its backup power and cooling systems. Compounding the crisis, the plant’s disaster preparedness plan and equipment were woefully inadequate for emergency response.

Japanese authorities enforced an immediate (likely permanent) evacuation zone of 12 miles around the plant, later expanded to 18 miles. Within a week, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced a far grimmer assessment of the nuclear disaster’s risks, and Americans within a 50-mile radius of the plant were told to evacuate. By day nine, radioactively contaminated agricultural products as far away as 65 miles were banned for sale, and radioactive iodine was found in Tokyo’s drinking water 142 miles away. Within a fortnight, an Austrian air monitoring network stated that radioactive releases from Fukushima approached those of Chernobyl. By week three, the new maelstrom was highly radioactive water leaking through cracks into groundwater, spilling into the sea through maintenance tunnels and contaminating marine ecosystems. In week four, a welter of long-lived problems that will worsen over time – namely, stresses on containment structures filled with water, explosive atmospheres in reactor structures and salt buildup from seawater doused on fuel rods – were identified by NRC nuclear engineers assessing the crisis.

As of April 11 – a month into the crisis – a core meltdown is ensuing, thousands of tons of radioactive water are being dumped into the sea, independent environmental and radiation experts predict global contamination and cancer deaths from the ongoing disaster and radiation from Japan has been detected in drinking water, air and milk across the United States. Reminiscent of Chernobyl, some evacuated Japanese residents are stealthily returning to their homes to check on them.

The earlier Chernobyl accident was reason enough to end the then-40-year-old chapter on nuclear power and vigorously pursue renewable technologies, as Mikhail Gorbachev has insisted. Now, a perfect storm of natural cataclysm, technology embedded with catastrophic risk, human error and heroic but hapless emergency workers faced with an inexorable crisis has proven anew the fatal attraction of nuclear power. Must we wait for the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse – a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility – to sound the industry’s final death knell? On the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, let us examine the lineaments of this industrial tragedy to glean lessons for our energy future.

“Chernobyl is a warning sign” -Mikhail Gorbachev

On the morning of April 26, 1986, an explosion in Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 released a radioactive plume which hurtled four miles into the atmosphere. A highly radioactive graphite fire burned in the reactor core for at least ten days, continuously spewing hazardous particles and aerosols. Seventy tons of combusted nuclear fuel and 700 tons of radioactive graphite were deposited near the disaster site, severely contaminating Belarus, western Russia and rich farmland in the Ukraine. Winds rapidly carried 50 tons of fine particles throughout the Northern Hemisphere, blanketing 77,000 square miles with varying amounts of radioisotopes of iodine, cesium, strontium and plutonium.

The consequences of Chernobyl are staggering. About 350,000 people were evacuated, many of whom continue to live in perpetual anxiety and uncertainty about the health effects of their radiation exposure. Relocated children were taunted as “glowworms” in their new schools, calling to mind the shunned hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Some attribute the collapse of the Soviet Union beginning in 1989 to the “psychic blow” of Chernobyl: nuclear power had the status of a “sacred cow”; its cadre of engineers and administrators, a sacred caste.1

The Union of Liquidators (first responders at disaster sites) estimates that ten percent of 600,000 workers who participated in fighting the Chernobyl fire and sealing the site have died and 165,000 are disabled. Estimates of cancer rates and deaths from Chernobyl vary greatly due to study assumptions, methods, geographic scope and politics. The highest estimate of overall mortality is 985,000 people, according to a recent compilation of more than 5,000 studies by respected Russian scientists published by the New York Academy of Sciences.2 The lowest estimates derive from UN studies, where pronuclear politics limit and potentially corrupt their findings. These politics are girded by the 1959 agreement between the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by which both agencies may withhold confidential information where they deem it necessary.

Thousands of acres of prime agricultural land remain seriously contaminated in the former Soviet breadbasket region; as of 2007, nearly 400 sheep farms in the UK remained in quarantine from radioactive fallout. In many European countries, restrictions on wild game, berries, mushrooms and fish will remain in effect for decades, if not centuries. Climate change will continue to create perils in the contaminated zones of Chernobyl, increasing the risk of fire-induced winds dispersing radioactive particles hundreds of miles from burning trees, plants and forest soil around Chernobyl.

Tens of billions of dollars were spent for disaster remediation, including a now crumbling, leaking concrete shelter over the still radioactive reactor. Like a penniless funeral director, the EU is soliciting funds from Europe, Russia and the US to meet the shortfall in costs to erect a more stable structure over the failed sarcophagus.

In March 2011, prior to the nuclear apocalypse of Japan’s Fukushima power plant, former Soviet prime minister Gorbachev published his lessons learned from Chernobyl. He called the Chernobyl accident “a shocking reminder of the reality of the nuclear threat.” The nuclear power industry survives through secrecy and deceit, he wrote, having kept private “some 150 significant radiation leaks at nuclear power stations over the world.” He warned that the new and most dire threat to nuclear power is nuclear terrorism, and called for a quick transition to “efficient, safe and renewable energy which will bring enormous economic, social, and environmental benefits.”

The retrospective lessons of Chernobyl are strikingly akin to those of the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima. Catastrophic risk – no matter how much it may be lowered by improved design, siting, materials, safety systems and trained operators – is inherent in the complex technology of nuclear power. Safer is nowhere near safe enough. For this reason, the US government continues to assume liability for damages to life and property from a nuclear power accident above $12.6 billion, and has proposed $36 billion in loan guarantees in 2012 for new nuclear plants. Without these entitlements, the nuclear industry would collapse. Wall Street concurs: In 2009, Moody’s Investors Service concluded that investment into nuclear power was a “bet the farm” risk.

Why gamble on the side of nuclear technology optimists who place their bets on future passive safety systems, pebble reactors and lessons learned from Fukushima when time is running out on the 60-year-old industry, economics is not on their side and renewables are ready? Critically acclaimed studies, among them one conducted by researchers Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi at Stanford and the University of California Davis have laid out a roadmap for energy policy in the next two to four decades, using a mix of energy efficiency, wind, water and solar technologies. Comparing the scale of effort to the Apollo moon project and building the interstate highway system, they concur that the barriers to achieving a renewable national and global energy system are fundamentally political and social, not technological or economic.3

Between 2000 and 2010, global wind electric generating capacity doubled every three years, tapping into a natural resource embodying 35 times the available energy of current world energy use. Lester Brown, founder of Worldwatch Institute, estimates that 40 percent of global electricity needs could be met by 2020 with a doubling of wind generating capacity every two years. The mobilization needed, which he compares to the mass production of B-24 bombers in World War II, would stimulate labor-intensive manufacturing and provide electricity much more quickly than new nuclear.4

As early as the Paris World Exhibition of 1878, when a solar steam engine powered by a parabolic mirror created a sensation, opportunities to build a durable energy economy on renewables were showcased, but then abandoned, by industrial countries. The energy resource road taken – fossil fuels and nuclear – has led us to Chernobyl, Fukushima, the Exxon Valdez and BP oil spills, black lung disease, Superfund waste sites, oil wars and climate change. The human and environmental health toll of this road taken will last beyond the seven generations which the Great Law of the Iroquois counsels us to protect. (“In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation … even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”) Where is our intergenerational solidarity? Where is our environmental justice in leaving “dead zones” and resource wars to future generations?

The fourth largest economy in the world, Germany, is accelerating its phaseout of nuclear power, which supplies one quarter of its energy, and shifting even more aggressively to renewable energy. This is, perhaps, the best news to come out of the dire situation in Fukushima, and its visual correlative is the lucent image of wind dynamos off the coast of Japan that withstood the tsunami, like a phoenix rising from nuclear ashes.

1 Stephanie Cooke. ( 2009) “In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age,” New York: Bloomsbury USA. ^

2 Alexey V. Yablokov et al. (2009), Eds. “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” New York: New York Academy of Sciences. ^

3 Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, “Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part 1: Technologies, energy resources, quantities, and areas of infrastructure, and materials,” Energy Policy 39 (2011) 1154-1169. ^

4 Lester R. Brown. (2009). “Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization,” New York: Norton. ^

H. Patricia Hynes is a retired professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health and chair of the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in western Massachusetts.


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