Reconsidering Chernobyl

Thirty-three years ago, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted down, creating one of the worst man-made disasters of the 20th century, prompting fears that Europe could become a devastated wasteland and hastening the end of the Soviet Union. The most catastrophic outcomes were avoided, but that accident triggered in many countries a reassessment of nuclear power. The passage of time has provided little clarity about the effects of the meltdown even though an accurate understanding of nuclear power is needed now more than ever.

The Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was considered a flagship technology, one that demanded the best trained workers who were given, with their families, five-star treatment in a country that was better known for its deprivations. A planned expansion in 1988 was to turn the facility into the largest nuclear power complex in the world.

Yet during a routine test on the night of April 25, 1986, there was a power surge at the No. 4 reactor that triggered a rupture in the reactor vessel and a series of explosions. It is alleged that one worker was “vaporized” on the spot and 30 more died slow, lingering deaths as a result of radiation poisoning. It is reckoned that the accident released more than 100 times the radiation created by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The KGB immediately cut phone lines to the afflicted area and within 36 hours the government created a 10-km exclusion area, which necessitated the evacuation of nearly 50,000 people from the town of Pripyat, the closest population center. Within a week, the evacuation zone was expanded to 30 km and another 68,000 people were evacuated. Eventually, some 350,000 people were forced to leave their homes.

While Ukrainians and other Soviet citizens were kept in the dark, shifting winds revealed a mysterious and dangerous nuclear plume to other governments in Europe. The Kremlin was forced to acknowledge the accident, though it attempted to minimize the impact by comparing it to nuclear accidents that occurred in the West, such as at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in the United States in 1979. The loss of faith in the government and the massive cost of the cleanup — estimated at $128 billion — is believed to have hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Chernobyl was the worst nuclear accident in history, but its effects remain uncertain. Thirty-one lives were lost because of the meltdown, but projections of longer-term deaths range from 56 (in a 2006 United Nations report) to an additional 4,000 cancer deaths (from a 2006 paper in the International Journal of Cancer). Many researchers have been surprised at how resilient the environment and how mild the health consequences have been. Nuclear power advocates note the contrast with death tolls following other man-made disasters, such as the 1975 collapse of a hydroelectric dam in China that caused at least 170,000 deaths (and perhaps as many as 230,000) or the Bhopal disaster in 1984 that sickened 500,000 people and resulted in an estimated 16,000 deaths.

Nevertheless, nuclear power remains subject to intense scrutiny and suspicion. Fair or not, it is associated with death on a massive scale — “weapons of mass destruction.” The creation of a national nuclear capability demands a commitment that would appear to brook no reconsideration. The decision to develop nuclear energy appears irreversible and governments and associated interests have gone to great lengths to protect those commitments, even if it can mean compromising public trust — as investigations that followed the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident indicated.

Yet as the reality of climate change becomes inescapable, nuclear energy is again inviting. An accurate understanding of the potential costs and risks — unburdened by emotion — is critical. Typical is a statement last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which announced that it was “taking a hard look at nuclear power plant closures,” because the “sobering realities” of climate change “dictate that we keep an open mind about all of the tools in the emissions reduction toolbox — even ones that are not our personal favorites.”

In Japan, the nuclear debate continues to rage. Governments have relied on nuclear power to promote energy self-sufficiency and cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in the energy sector. Before the Fukushima accident, nuclear energy contributed 25 percent of Japanese energy production; it fell to zero in 2012 and reached just 1.7 percent in 2016. But the government still plans to increase the nuclear contribution to 20 to 22 percent of power supply in 2030. An accurate understanding of what transpired in Chernobyl 33 years ago, and why, is essential if there are to be meaningful answers to questions surrounding nuclear use — perhaps the most important questions we must ever consider.