Let’s challenge these myths of Chernobyl

Much of today’s anti-nuclear hysteria is based on a misunderstanding of what happened in Ukraine.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Science & Tech

Yesterday was the twenty-fourth anniversary of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. That incident has become one of the main obstacles to the expansion of nuclear power, with environmental groups like Greenpeace demanding that we ‘Remember Chernobyl’. Indeed, we should – but we should remember what actually happened, not the nightmarish spectre summoned up by so many greens.

The tragic irony of the Chernobyl accident is that it was caused by a safety test on one of the four reactors. There was concern about what would happen if external power supplies to the plant were cut. The pumps supplying the huge amounts of water that were needed to keep the reactors cool might stop, and safety officials had noted that the diesel pumps that provided backup power could not get up to speed quickly enough, leaving a dangerous one-minute gap in which the reactors would get hotter and hotter. The aim of the test was to see if another source of power could be used during that crucial minute to power the electric pumps. However, a series of delays, human errors and mechanical failures before, during and immediately after the short test led Reactor No.4 to overheat massively and explode.

As Adam Higginbottom described in the Observer in 2006, on the twentieth anniversary of the accident, ‘all the somnambulant working practices bred by the Soviet Union’s years of stagnation – bumbling management, bad design and an expedient disregard for rules – fell into deadly alignment around Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4’. Just before 1.24am, a series of explosions blew the huge metal and concrete safety lid off the reactor, exposing the core. Enormous quantities of radiation poured out. In the next few days, a number of the plant operators and firemen fought heroically to seal the reactor, and many of them died horribly from radiation sickness as a result. ‘If we’d followed regulations’, one fireman told Higginbottom, ‘we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze.’

Radioactive material was scattered far and wide, most notably in the surrounding parts of Ukraine and Belarus, but thousands of miles away, too. In the UK, for example, many sheep are still tested (almost certainly pointlessly) to ensure that no dangerous radioactivity enters the food chain.

Chernobyl was by far the world’s worst nuclear accident. However, official studies suggest that the accident was not as apocalyptic as we have often been led to believe over the past 24 years. According to a report in 2005, produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), ‘4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant… As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004.’

Others claim that the WHO-IAEA report is a gross underestimate. Not surprisingly, considering it is a stalwartly anti-nuclear campaign group, Greenpeace published a report in 2006 claiming that ‘the full consequences of the Chernobyl disaster could top a quarter of a million cancer cases and nearly 100,000 fatal cancers’, with tens of thousands of premature deaths from other causes. However, there is good reason to believe that the WHO-IAEA claims of 50 deaths so far is nearer the mark. Apart from the poor souls who fought to deal with the accident directly, the actual radiation dose received by the population in the countries around the plant was quite small. As Richard D North notes: ‘Chernobyl is a relatively minor contributor to the radiation dose of the vast majority of even those people who lived under its plume’. In normal circumstances, a third of people die from cancer and for those in the region around the plant, the radiation from the accident would have been ‘a very, very minor factor’ in their deaths.

The picture of Chernobyl in many people’s minds is of a nuclear wasteland for miles around. Nothing could be further from the truth. The area around the plant has been largely depopulated, but Paul Seaman describes the 30 kilometre-wide exclusion zone as a green and pleasant land populated by just a few refuseniks; the area has become a huge nature reserve. As Tom Whipple described in The Times (London) in 2009, there are even holiday tours to the area. According to Whipple, Pripyat – the model city built to house Chernobyl’s workers, which was vacated after the accident – is ‘what the apocalypse will look like’. It is a world without us: ‘The Communist Party headquarters is just visible behind 20 years of forest growth, displaying the logo of an atom. The angular concrete of a restaurant beyond is softened by a small copse on its roof. This is the apocalypse, and the apocalypse is leafy.’

But the area has not been entirely handed over to the animals. It might seem incredible, but the nuclear power plant carried on working until 2000. While the explosion at Reactor No.4 produced a lot of radiation, it was cleaned up and contained quite quickly. Three other reactors, literally metres away, were effectively unharmed and thousands of people continued to work in them producing electricity. It was a big accident, but the explosion itself was only a fraction of the size of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atomic bombings. In fact, the reactors might have operated for longer if it had simply been up to the Ukrainian government; it was pressure from the West that forced their closure.

Injecting some balance into the discussion of the accident and death toll at Chernobyl is not to suggest that this incident was an irrelevance. It was a very serious accident. But the lesson to be learned is not that nuclear power is inherently dangerous. In fact, Chernobyl aside, nuclear power has an astonishingly good safety record. The only other nuclear incidents that any member of the general public can ever remember were an accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, USA in 1979 – which resulted in no deaths at the time and produced an average exposure to radiation for the local population equivalent to a single chest x-ray – and a fire at the Windscale nuclear plant (now called Sellafield) in northern England in 1957, which again passed without immediate casualties (though about 200 cases of cancer were estimated to have been caused as a result in subsequent years).

What happened at Chernobyl was down to a flawed reactor design compounded by human error and a typically Soviet approach to safety and quality control. If the traditional thick concrete cover typical in nuclear plants elsewhere had encased Reactor No.4, there may well have been no widescale release of radiation at all. The fact that many other plants have been operating around the world for decades with barely any major incidents – including many with a similar design to Reactor No.4 – is reassuring.

Ironically, many leading greens have recently come out in support of expanding nuclear power, including James Lovelock, Mark Lynas and former Greenpeace UK director, Stephen Tindale. Another veteran green, Stewart Brand, in his book Whole Earth Discipline, offers a mea culpa for opposing nuclear power for so long. ‘My opinion on nuclear has flipped from anti to pro. The question I ask myself now is, “What took me so long?” I could have looked into the realities of nuclear power many years earlier, if I weren’t so lazy.’

Brand worries that greens are now the barrier to what he sees as a safe, low-carbon technology: ‘The danger is that the minority of vehement anti-nuclear “environmentalists” could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed such that utilities are forced to continue coal-burning in order to keep the lights on. That is a prescription for disaster.’

The collapse of the Copenhagen talks called into question new nuclear plants, at least in the UK. Because of the nature of nuclear plant operation – very high building costs but low subsequent running costs – investors need to be sure that there will be a secure market for their product before putting up their money. Rather than actually guaranteeing a price for the electricity from new plants, however, the British government has decided to leave it to the market on the basis that the cost of emitting greenhouse gases – the ‘price of carbon’ – will ensure that nuclear will be competitive. But without a deal on a mechanism to create a price for carbon, as might have been agreed at Copenhagen, the companies that planned to build the new, much needed nuclear plants are now faced with considerable uncertainty.

It would have been far better if the government had backed nuclear directly. Now that the idea of a carbon-pricing mechanism is out there, investors will be inclined to hold back until the post-Copenhagen mess is sorted out. They worry that the eventual price set for carbon will be too low to make nuclear power competitive with existing technologies like coal and gas. While wind power gets all the subsidies and backhanders it could possibly want, nuclear power has been left in the lurch. Remarkably, in last Thursday’s televised debate between the UK’s main party leaders, prime minister Gordon Brown lambasted his Liberal Democrat opponents for ruling out new nuclear plants. From the leader of a government that has been tepid at best in its support for nuclear, this is utterly galling.

Nuclear power is a safe, reliable and developing technology. We should be building new nuclear plants as soon as possible. And the fact that we have rejected nuclear for so long, and are still dithering about it today, has a lot to do with the myth of Chernobyl, its exploitation by anti-modern greens, and its impact on the increasingly risk-averse, investment-shirking governments that rule over us.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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