Nuclear realities after Chernobyl

 

TODAY’S 25th anniversary of the disaster at Chernobyl finds the world engaged in a new debate about the safety of nuclear power following the damage done by the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Both are now classified on the highest scale of such accidents.

Despite the undoubted progress made in design and safety standards, trust in the industry still lags behind its technological development because endemic secrecy, powerful lobbies and disputed statistics remain characteristic of its public profile. Chernobyl put these on the map and they are still there.

The Chernobyl accident occurred on April 26th, 1986, during an ill-advised test to see what would happen when the badly-designed plant was deprived of electricity. Instead of the test determining how long the cooling equipment would function, the reactor overheated uncontrollably and blew a 2,000-tonne lid off the core, releasing 200 times more radioactivity than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the United States in 1945. It spread across Europe and as far as North America. Some seven million people were affected in the surrounding regions, 300,000 displaced, while casualties are variously estimated at an immediate 30 to 100 deaths and a possible eventual 5,000 to 30,000 from longer-term cancers. The Irish public has been made vividly aware of these human costs by the Chernobyl Children International run by Adi Roche.

Aside from the effects on public health, the disaster appalled citizens of the then Soviet Union because of the secrecy and indifference initially displayed by those in charge. Information was delayed about the accident, even from Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the communist party. This encouraged him to embark on his campaign for openness (glasnost) in government, which culminated five years later in the end of the regime. By then the full costs of Chernobyl were better appreciated, including for the huge steel and concrete sarcophagus built over the reactor to contain the 96 per cent of the uranium and plutonium still there. Last week an international conference in Kiev pledged funds for a new steel structure to reinforce it for another 100 years. The nuclear material will remain active for 100,000 years.

Such facts were a great setback for the nuclear power industry, reducing the number of plants built in the 1990s and raising questions about its safety and sustainability. Yet these worries receded as improved technologies emerged, coupled with growing awareness of how climate change is caused by greenhouse gases. Rapid economic development in Asia and Latin America is mainly based on fossil fuels, natural sources of energy are insufficient, so nuclear power appears attractive as a cleaner alternative.

Throughout the world, some 430 nuclear power plants in 31 states supply about 15 per cent of electricity needs. However, the nuclear industry must convince sceptical publics it is not disaster-prone if it is to be accepted as an efficient, accountable, cost-effective and relatively clean technology.