Apr 27, 2006

On Chernobyl and Nuclear Power

(Toledo, OH) Depending on which dateline you fall under, either yesterday or today is the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

I heard a twenty-something news anchor mangle the pronunciation of "Chernobyl" last night, and it occurred to me that the youngish newscaster could be forgiven. After all, the person was likely a small child when the partial meltdown occurred in Reactor 4 on April 26, 1986.

Figures vary widely on the human costs of the catastrophe. Approximately 55 people died from radiation poisioning in the days and weeks immediately following the tragedy. Thousands more died from cancer and other diseases since 1986, while many thousands more will likely suffer reduced lifespans from acquired radiation-related diseases.

Greenpeace claims that 93,000 people have already died from radiation-related illnesses, and the group argues that in "Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine alone the accident could have resulted in an estimated 200,000 additional deaths in the period between 1990 and 2004."

Radioactive fallout from the disaster has spread throughout the northern hemisphere, circling the globe. The nations of Belarus and the Ukraine have been hardest hit, and areas of Russia continue to show dangerous levels of residual radiation.

Surprisingly the Ukraine government continued to operate the facility until 2000, arguing that the energy needs of the nation outweighed any risks to workers or the surrounding countryside.

Reactor 4 remains encased in a concrete "sarcophagus," and the deadly radioactive material threatens to seep into the groundwater.

Which brings us to the important question of the day: do the needs of Americans for affordable energy outweigh the unique risks associated with nuclear power? The dramatic rise in oil prices has generated calls for a renewed American nuclear energy effort.

While some might dismiss Chernobyl as indicative of the inefficiency of the Soviet system, the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio came dangerously close to a similar fate several years ago. Corrosion on a reactor head created holes that were a mere 5/8" from being exposed to an uncontrollable meltdown.

This near-disaster could have been as deadly - or worse - than the catastrophe in Chernobyl. Look at your children before you answer.


Anonymous said...

"look at the children" - typical liberal response. Gag.

-Sepp said...

HM, the main problem with east blok nuclear reactors is that they only had primary containment as a safety feature. Western reactors not only have primary but, secondary containment meaning that if there were a chernobyl type accident (impossible since we do not have graphite moderated reactors here) there is a secondary defense against radiation escaping into the atmosphere. Plus, our reactors have so many redundant safety systems that the reactor will scram (shut itsself down) if EVERYTHING is not within tolerances. (and I mean EVERYTHING) Even Davis Besse's reactor head incident would have shut down the plant had the head ruptured when pressure was lost and it's secondary containment would have prevented a release of radiation into the atmosphere. Nuclear power was once called "electricity too cheap to meter" then add government oversight and public fear and the cost goes up. I'll be happy to answer any question you have about nuclear power

historymike said...

Anonymous - I might flip your statement around and say that anyone who does not consider the well-being of their children is one twisted sociopath.

We might disagree on what, exactly, constitutes the ideal path to a healthy, proseprous future, but I doubt that concern for children is a "liberal" response.

Maybe you should educate yourself beyond the liberal witch-hunts of talk radio.

Name withheld to protect the guilty said...

Even some prominent environmentalists are calling for nuclear power, under the theory that newer designs are even safer than any of the older US designs, and the threat of global warming from carbon emissions is even worse.

Speaking of news anchors, I heard Jim Blue (NBC 24) correctly use the word "ebullient" in a sentence. The more I hear from him, the more I like him.

Lisa Renee said...

My main issue with nuclear power is the storage of the waste issue. I think it can be done safely, especially with some of the newer designs.

Anchorage Activist said...

HM - I don't share your apprehension regarding nuclear power, simply because France has been extensively dependent upon it for years without any apparent "Chernobyls".

As developing nations like India and China increase their consumption of fossil fuels, we will need to further diversify our energy sourcing. Nuclear power is one of many tools to be employed towards this end, along with wind and solar.

However, nuclear plants must be carefully planned, sited, constructed and maintained. There must be annual inspections, and a comprehensive 10-year inspection where the plant is taken off-line and inspected from top to toe. Failure of such an inspection must result in the immediate termination of the plant's senior staff to provide a strong incentive for supervisory involvement. Such a comprehensive inspection might have uncovered the corrosion you cited at the Davis-Besse plant.

Our track record isn't bad. Our closest flirtation with disaster was Three Mile Island, and the reason it did not become a Chernobyl was because of more safeguards and better training, which led to a quicker reaction. Furthermore, there've been no known recurrences.

Data said...

looks like they'll be looking more closely at the children at the tritium leak (where no one noticed for 3 months)from Exelon plants in Illinois, where 60 cancer cases are now suspected from this. Too much history of accidents and coverups and irresponsible operation, monitoring and accident response on part of industry and government.. too much cost, too much waste and unresolved storage, too much cost now to decommission, still relying on fuel that's likely to run out (not to mention a terrorist target), and too long to build plants. I have alot more to say about it, from experiences helping people suffering from irresponsible companies and really poor government response.... It's time to stop the madness... Absolutely nothing matters without an earth to have it on..

Brian said...

Chernobyl was a human tragedy, without a doubt. And that children were hurt makes it worse.

However, nuclear power is part of our past and part of our future. Any sane energy plan or policy must incorporate it.

Hooda Thunkit said...


"Which brings us to the important question of the day: do the needs of Americans for affordable energy outweigh the unique risks associated with nuclear power?"

I'd be more comfortable if delivering SAFE nuclear energy was the goal, rather than PROFITABLE nuclear energy.

And then, only after all non-nuclear energy efforts had been maxed out first.

Why, we've barely begun with wind, water, and solar energy generation, relatively speaking...