Fukushima and Chernobyl: why worry?

It’s notable that, since the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, the most visited post on this blog has been one I wrote a couple of years ago about the film Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl.  You’re searching, I guess, for information about that previous nuclear disaster in the Ukraine in 1986, anxious about the likely effects of the Japanese disaster and looking for facts.

Recently a torrent of condemnation has poured down on the head of George Monbiot who used his Guardian column a couple of weeks ago to present the astonishing argument that Fukushima had caused him to change his mind about nuclear power: in his piece – Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power – Monbiot wrote:

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation. […]

Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.

The best response to Monbiot’s strange lapse of reason comes today from John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor.  In Nuclear’s green cheerleaders forget Chernobyl at our peril, he writes:

Every day there are more setbacks to solving the Japanese nuclear crisis and it’s pretty clear that the industry and governments are telling us little; have no idea how long it will take to control; or what the real risk of cumulative contamination may be.

The authorities reassure us by saying there is no immediate danger and a few absolutist environmentalists obsessed with nuclear power because of the urgency to limit emissions repeat the industry mantra that only a few people died at Chernobyl – the worst nuclear accident in history. Those who disagree are smeared and put in the same camp as climate change deniers.

I prefer the words of Alexey Yablokov, member of the Russian academy of sciences, and adviser to President Gorbachev at the time of Chernobyl: “When you hear ‘no immediate danger’ [from nuclear radiation] then you should run away as far and as fast as you can.” […]

Five years ago I visited the still highly contaminated areas of Ukraine and the Belarus border where much of the radioactive plume from Chernobyl descended on 26 April 1986. I challenge chief scientist John Beddington and environmentalists like George Monbiot or any of the pundits now downplaying the risks of radiation to talk to the doctors, the scientists, the mothers, children and villagers who have been left with the consequences of a major nuclear accident.

Vidal notes that, though a great number of studies into the health effects of radiation from Chernobyl have been carried out, only a very few have been accepted by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, and estimates of the damage to health from Chernobyl vary wildly.   A study by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that only 57 direct deaths and 4,000 expected cancers could be attributed to Chernobyl.  But the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), estimate that more than 10,000 people had been affected by thyroid cancer alone and a further 50,000 cases could be expected. Vidal continues:

Moving up the scale, a 2006 report for Green MEPs suggested up to 60,000 possible deaths; Greenpeace took the evidence of 52 scientists and estimated the deaths and illnesses to be 93,000 terminal cancers already and perhaps 140,000 more in time. Using other data, the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences declared in 2006 that 212,000 people had died as a direct consequence of Chernobyl.  … [Another study]… factoring in the worldwide drop in births and increase in cancers seen after the accident, estimated … that 985,000 people had so far died and the environment had been devastated. Their findings were met with almost complete silence by the World Health Organisation and the industry.

Vidal concludes:

So who can we trust when the estimates swing so wildly? Should we believe the empirical evidence of the doctors; or governments and industrialists backed by their PR companies? So politicised has nuclear energy become, that you can now pick and choose your data, rubbish your opponents, and ignore anything you do not like. The fact is we may never know the truth about Chernobyl because the records are lost, thousands of people from 24 countries who cleaned up the site have dispersed across the vast former Soviet Union, and many people have died.

Fukushima is not Chernobyl, but it is potentially worse. It is a multiple reactor catastrophe happening within 150 miles of a metropolis of 30 million people. If it happened at Sellafield, there would be panic in every major city in Britain. We still don’t know the final outcome but to hear experts claiming that nuclear radiation is not that serious, or that this accident proves the need for nuclear power, is nothing short of disgraceful.

The latest news from Fukushima seems to bear out Vidal’s case – radioactive water has been found leaking into the sea through a crack near the sluice gate of one of the damaged reactor units at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.

Also in The Guardian today is an article by Bill McKibben, environmentalist and author of the first book to warn of climate change back in 1989 – The End of Nature. In his esssay, ‘Natural disasters?‘ (the question-mark is significant), McKibben argues that, after a an era of relative stability, the earth is now moving into a new geological epoch:

a world remade by man, most obvious in his emissions of carbon dioxide. That CO2 traps heat near the planet that would otherwise have radiated back to space – there is, simply, more energy in our atmosphere than there used to be. And that energy expresses itself in many ways: ice melts, water heats, clouds gather. 2010 was the warmest year on record, and according to insurers – the people we task with totting up disasters – it demonstrated the unprecedented mayhem this new heat causes. Global warming was “the only plausible explanation”, the giant reinsurer Munich Re explained in December, of 2010’s catastrophes, the drought, heatwave and fires across Russia, and the mega-floods in Pakistan, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere were at least plausibly connected to the general heating. They were, that is to say, not precisely “natural disasters”, but something more complex; the human thumb was on the scale.

McKibben concludes on a positive note:

Not every natural disaster is unnatural now, and we may be able to fool ourselves a little longer. But these days it’s the climate deniers who act like the pious of yore, unable to accept the truth. I was surprised, and impressed, to read a poll of Americans taken recently. By healthy majorities, this most religious of western citizenries said natural disasters were more likely to be a sign of climate change than of God’s displeasure.

Which is good news, because for the first time in human history we can prevent a great deal of unnecessary cataclysm in the years ahead. Not all of it – there will always be earthquakes and hurricanes. But every bit of carbon we keep out of the atmosphere is that much less extra energy we add to the system. It’s that much less disaster waiting to happen.

Returning to Chernobyl: sometimes we need poetry as well as science to help us understand.  Lyubov Sirota was director of a writing project for children in the city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.  On 25 April 1986 she went out on to her balcony seeking a breath of fresh air in the night and saw the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explode in front of her. In the days that followed, she and her son grew gravely ill from heavy doses of radioactive contamination. To express her grief and rage, she turned to writing poems, and collected them in a small book entitled Burden.  As the months went by, Lyubov developed cataracts and a brain tumor as a consequence of her exposure to radiation.


How amazing
in my thirtieth year
not to live
but instead
stumble along –
all bygone years
both happy and deadly,
heavy, wet, like logs,
crowd in the soul
as if in a tomb!

The soul does not sing
but rather becomes mute;
rather than aches . . .
So it is harder to breathe.

I am not to fly!
Though the shallow edge
of heaven is over my porch.
Already the roads have tired me,
hobbled me so –
I can no longer soar!

Faces reflect in the heavens.
faces of those
to whom I have said farewell.
Not one can be forgotten!
No oblivion!

The soul, it seems –
is a difficult memory.
Nothing can be erased,
nothing subtracted,
nothing canceled,
nothing corrected!

Even so, the burden is sacred,
the heavier
the dearer!

To Pripyat

We can neither expiate nor rectify
the mistakes and misery of that April.
The bowed shoulders of a conscience awakened
must bear the burden of torment for life.
It’s impossible, believe me,
to overpower
or overhaul
our pain for the lost home.
Pain will endure in the beating hearts
stamped by the memory of fear.
surrounded by prickly bitterness,
our puzzled town asks:
since it loves us
and forgives everything,
why was it abandoned forever?

At night, of course, our town
though emptied forever, comes to life.
There, our dreams wander like clouds,
illuminate windows with moonlight.

There trees live by unwavering memories,
remember the touch of hands.
How bitter for them to know
there will be no one for their shade
to protect from the scorching heat!
At night their branches quietly rock
our inflamed dreams.
Stars thrust down
onto the pavement,
to stand guard until morning . . .
But the hour will pass . . .
Abandoned by dreams,
the orphaned houses
whose windows
have gone insane
will freeze and bid us farewell! . . .

We’ve stood over our ashes;
now what do we take on our long journey?
The secret fear that wherever we go
we are superfluous?
The sense of loss
that revealed the essence
of a strange and sudden kinlessness,
showed that our calamity is not
shared by those who might, one day,
themselves face annihilation?
. . . We are doomed to be left behind by the flock
in the harshest of winters . . .
You, fly away!
But when you fly off
don’t forget us, grounded in the field!
And no matter to what joyful faraway lands
your happy wings bear you,
may our charred wings
protect you from carelessness.


3 thoughts on “Fukushima and Chernobyl: why worry?

  1. I thought Monbiot was to be roundly applauded, not excoriated, for his change of mind. No one argues nuclear power is free from risk; no one denies the impact of radiation on human tissue is severe. Hence the industry takes enormous precautions against calamity, not least in siting nuclear establishments some distance from major population centres.

    As I recall Monbiot’s case, he accepted that a massive earthquake with devastating tsunami met most people’s definition of ‘calamity’. Yet the wider leak of radiation at that point had been minor – certainly well below thresholds dangerous to public health. In short, the nuclear power industry had survived pretty much the worst calamity it could expect. The impact on health fell miles below the daily impact of fossil fuel-based power.

    Chernobyl is not the paradigm nuclear disaster; it’s an out-lier. Fukushima is likely to be nearer the norm – a once-in-30-years (or 50 years) disaster that is awful for those in the immediate vicinity, but otherwise easily contained.

    If events like this bring nuclear power development to a halt, we face a far worse global crisis. The demand for energy is rising exponentially. So who moves first to a low-energy, low-growth economy? Not us, for sure; nor America. So, absent nuclear energy, we burn fossil-fuel instead. There are no practical alternatives, not in the sun or wind.

    Our task therefore is to manage the risks inherent in nuclear power, and learn to live with them

  2. Dave, I agree that Monbiot was brave to change his position, but I can’t agree with his or your reasoning. The problem with nuclear is that the risk can’t be assessed in the short term as with other industrial activities. Even in the case of Fukushima (which I agree even in a worst-case scenario is not likely to be as catastrophic as Chernobyl) the multi-billion dollar plant is now a write-off and will cost further billions to decommission. A zone of some considerable size will also be economically deactivated and depopulated for decades, at least, to come. Though it might seem at present that the death-toll (2) is neglible compared to the tsunami, the long-term health consequences in terms of cancers are likely to be much greater.

    Nuclear only appears attractive compared to renewables because the industry is hugely subsidised by the taxpayer. Without government guarantees, this is an industry that could never make a profit and would never attract shareholders if the costs of decommissioning had to be shouldered by the industry alone.

    The industry does not site its plants ‘some distance from major population centres’: we ourselves live only 40 miles or so from Sellafield, and in Japan, France, USA and many other countries the plants are situated close to big towns or cities.

    I understand the fears about the global energy crisis/climate change crisis. We have probably already missed the boat in terms of avoiding some calamity. My position would be – you don’t resolve a desperate situation by adopting desperate measures that could have equally calamitous consequences for future generations. We just have to keep pushing the alternatives.

  3. Fact: nuclear power is unsafe.

    Proof: Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and so forth.

    In addition: nuclear waste from reactors remains deadly for 1000 years and can only be dumped or buried away where it remains potentially lethal for a millennium.

    Discussion: three thousand years ago our ancestors gave us Stonehenge to marvel at as our heritage. What will we bequeath to posterity, a subterranean dump of highly toxic, radioactive waste. To date that is the measure of our civilisation, that is what we will be judged by, not by what we say but by what we have actually done.

    Epilogue: as nuclear accidents inevitably occur, and as nuclear power stations proliferate, the environment will be steadily poisoned by radiation leaked to the environment by these accidents and by potential leaks from nuclear waste stored underground, or any number of accident scenarios happening between the production of this lethal waste material and its burial out of sight.

    The entire planet will become more and more radioactive leading to life forms perishing and the quality of life for human beings – already critical for millions of people in industrialised society – dipping to intolerable.

    As it is, the sizeable legacy of old nuclear reactors and radioactive waste sites will remain lethal for a thousand years, and will have to be maintained and supervised for all that period of time, which is an insane proposition and cancels out any apparent profit generated by nuclear energy anyway – it is not a cheap alternative energy source, it is a technological mill stone around each of our necks which grows the heavier with the commissioning of each new nuclear reactor.

    The nuclear power industry must be decommissioned *now*.

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