Chernobyl is 28
i had the option to see the Chernobyl site 18 years ago today when i was in Kiev, i did not go. i still don’t regret my choice. Oh, i was certainly tempted and curious. It was the 10th anniversary of the disaster and we had brought over one hundred anti-nuclear activists from around the world to Kiev to talk about how to end nuclear power world wide. The Ukrainian event organizers planned a field trip out to the melted down reactor and dozens of safe energy campaigners went donning protective Tyvek suits and face masks.
But i knew about hot spots. i knew that the clean up effort had been wholly inadequate. i had seen the endless pictures of negative health effects. Kiev was as close as i was willing to get to this human created toxic mess. i did not go, because radiation is a probability game and i did not want to take risky chances. We don’t know how many people died due to Chernobyl. WHO (the UN’s health agency) with the help of the pro-nuclear IAEA estimate 4000 premature deaths. Using the same model, the Union of Concerned Scientist estimate 27,000 deaths. Greenpeace says 93K additional deaths between 1990 and 2004. The New York Academy of Science brings in a number of 985K deaths. We know that 600K Liquidators worked on the clean up were mostly late teenagers and 20 somethings at least 60K of them were dead by 2006. [There is a good recent article on exactly this issue in the Ecologist Magazine.]
Similarly, we don’t know how many will die from Fukushima. If you read the popular media, you will often hear none. This is like calling the death toll at Chernobyl 28. We already know that in the Fukushima province more have died from the effects of the meltdowns than the 1600 who were killed on March 11, 2011 by the tsunami. And many more have serious adverse health effects, plus over 80K who remain displaced. Japan will be studied more than the Ukraine was, expect bad news. The Chernobyl accident had shocked the world and seriously damaged the credibility of the nuclear power industry. Less than half a year before the meltdown the IAEA (the US’s “nuclear watchdog”) had inspected the Chernobyl plant and given it high ratings. The nuclear industry continued to assure the public that the chances of catastrophic accidents were barely worth talking about, much less planning for.
What has kept nuclear power alive since Chernobyl is a combination of factors none of which we can be proud of. The first is money. As a utility, if you can build a reactor and largely get other people to pay for it AND you can get the government to pay for the insurance AND you can avoid paying the full cost for handling the waste AND you can block cheaper renewables, then you can make money with nuclear power plants . A lot of money.
The second thing which serves the nuclear industry is our collective lack of memory. The US especially is guilty of choosing to look forward rather than bothering to look back. We can see this in today’s US press, which seems to be completely ignoring the Chernobyl anniversary. [There is an excellent piece today in Al Jazeera on how Chernobyl birthed the resistance movements across the Soviet Union. and how the lingering health effects of hundreds of thousands are the real lesson.] Instead it is excited about the marketing promises of those who want to build new reactors underground or out at sea.
I like to remind people of the flooding which happened at Fort Calhoun in the summer of 2011. One of the dramatic pictures is above. We very nearly lost a big piece of Nebraska, but unless you are carefully following the nuclear news, you have likely never heard of this near accident. The nuclear industry likes to remind us that the Fukushima earthquake was 1 in 10,000 years. They say nothing of the flooding that happens increasingly often and severely in Nebraska. Add to this a US regulator who is downplaying and censoring dam failure information and you have a high risk situation.
The third factor, in my opinion, is that there is not really an international anti-nuclear movement. i said this in Kiev and it is still true. i can count on two hands all the people i think are active international anti-nuclear activists (i would not be on this list), most of them i am honored to call my friends. The economic loss from Fukushima alone is estimated between US$250 and 500 billion – more than all but the top 21 countries make in a year. Contrast this with the well under US$1 million spent annually on international anti-nuclear campaigning. The Fukushima and Chernobyl meltdowns did not stop at the borders, yet our efforts to halt radioactive poisons largely do.
Fukushima has also shocked the world and seriously damaged the credibility of the nuclear industry. But the wealthy nuclear industry plus a forgetful public maybe just the combination needed to create a perfect storm and cost us the opportunity to leave nuclear behind forever. We continue to take risky chances. The lessons for Chernobyl and Fukushima are not how to make reactor technology safer, it is that this is a technology which we should retire.