Chernobyl versus nuclear power

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I don’t know whether it was the intention of the creators of HBO’s “Chernobyl” mini-series to scare the viewers’ pants off about the nuclear technology (I do know it was their intention for the viewers to watch the Soviet cluster-f*** with its ignorance, arrogance and the abuse of power and think of Donald Trump), but I won’t be surprised if this will be the effect. Neither the mini-series themselves nor the cold hard facts support such a reaction, but hey, who out there will watch an exquisitely put together show about an exploding reactor and not have shivers running down their back? There but for the grace of God…

Chernobyl was a deadly combination of three factors: the negligence of the engineer conducting the test shut-down, who broke every safety rule and procedure under the sun in order to tick an overdue box and curry a favour with his superiors; the design fault with this particular type of reactor, which was unknown to anyone working onsite as it had been kept a state secret (why was it designed this way? one of the mini-series protagonists is asked. The same reason every other corner had been cut under communism: because it was cheaper that way); and, lastly, the totalitarian political system that prioritises secrecy and keeping up the appearances over any other considerations, including human life. No one can possibly say that an accident like Chernobyl could not happen again – the impossible remains the impossible until it actually happens, as “black swan” events invariably do, but the congruence of the three factors that made Chernobyl possible in 1986 is unlikely to repeat, possibly not even in Russia, where a lot and very little has changed in the past 33 years.

For the tragedy – and the multiple levels of negligence and callousness – of Chernobyl, the nuclear energy remains the safest of the conventional methods of generating power. Completely counter-intuitively it is also safer than “the renewables”, as this nice chart shows:

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(based on this article)

That coal is deadly might not be as surprising when you consider all the mining accidents, particularly in the developing world, as well as the extent of mortality from smoke-caused lung diseases, again particularly in the developing world – though the extent of that problem is not something that often occurs to us who generally enjoy pretty clear air, even in our cities. For that matter is not just the fossil fuels – burning of biomass (whether wood or dried dung) throughout the poorest countries in the world to produce heat also accounts for a staggering number of premature deaths.

But solar and wind? Well, they don’t kill from pollution, since they don’t produce any, but they kills a number of trade people involved in installation and maintenance, who fall to their deaths from roofs and turbines. The fact that nuclear power is so “safe”, even when Chernobyl and Fukushima worst case estimates are included, is the testament to the highest safety standards in this industry, which other than (and for most people it’s a big “other than”) the two famous accidents has been and continues to be pretty much incident-free. The fact that the nuclear energy remains such a bogeyman to so many is that the prospect, however unlikely, and the sheer horror of such “big bang” events outweighs the reality of the day-to-day safety and reliability of nuclear power plants across the world. It’s human psychology with its cognitive biases triumphing over science and rationality. Another illustration is our fear of dying in a terrorist attack or an aircraft accident far outweighing the fear of – infinitely more likely – meeting out end falling down the stairs or getting run over by a car.

As terrible as Chernobyl was – and it was made so much worse by the typical Soviet disregard for the lives and well-being of its citizens – it was not actually as terrible as most people imagine, and arguably less terrible than “Chernobyl”‘s concluding captions made it out to be, when they quote the range of related deaths as roughly between 30,000 and 100 thousand. The fact that the Soviet authorities weren’t interested in counting the victims does not help in making reasonable estimates of the impact, but Ukraine has now been an independent and more or less democratic country for over a quarter of a century, which at least has enabled some proper research to be done.

What we do know is that 28 first responders and the plant’s employees died of acute radiation poisoning within weeks of the accident and further 15 of the original survivors died prematurely over the following decade. The health effect on the hundreds of thousands of military and other personnel used in the clean up operations as well as the millions of residents in the region around Chernobyl are more open to questions. Perhaps the most comprehensive review, by the Chernobyl Forum, built on the conclusions of eight United Nations agencies, tentatively indicated that the total excess death toll, mostly due to cancers, may eventually reach 4,000 individuals among the 5 million affected.

A far greater tragedy is that some excess 150,000 abortions are estimated to have occurred in the aftermath of Chernobyl, motivated by unfounded fears about the impact of radiation during pregnancy. This is the little known aspect of Chernobyl, which demonstrates that a resulting panic can kill a lot more people than the incident itself.

Unlike wind or solar, the nuclear energy could easily eliminate fossil fuels and reduce emissions to zero within the next decade or so. Building nuclear reactors is expensive but the subsequent operation isn’t. The problem is that the same people who are most concerned about climate change also happen to fear the nuclear power the most. Sadly, “Chernobyl” will not do anything to dispel these fears.

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