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February 28, 2006

Chernobyl: Let's make something of the world's worst nuclear accident

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North marks the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and his own attachment to the place by suggesting that it shows nuclear power and its legacy need not be unduly risky.

This essay marks the launch of www.chernobyllegacy.com, which is sponsored by the Social Affairs Unit as a contribution to the nuclear power debate. Richard D. North is the editor of www.chernobyllegacy.com

Chernobyl is in the marshy north of Ukraine, near that country's border with Belorussia. Like Bhopal in India, it would be hardly known in the wider world were it not for a disaster. And yet the accident's reputation has done far more damage to the Ukraine and Belorussia than the April 1986 accident actually did to those countries or the wider world. That's to say: "Chernobyl" produced a vast mushroom cloud of myth which has not yet dispersed, twenty years on.

What's even odder is that we seem reluctant to learn the real lessons of this beautiful place and its brave and ingenious inhabitants.

Nuclear power is now being discussed rather seriously. It is a possible solution to shortages and volatility in conventional energy supplies, and to the problem of the climate change caused by burning fossil fuels. And whenever nuclear power is discussed, "Chernobyl" is lobbed into the equation as the nightmare which awaits us.

The debate over Chernobyl seldom generates much light. It is still discussed as though the problem it posed and poses was mostly to do with the accidental discharge of several atomic bombs'-worth of radiation on that sunny spring day when the inhabitants of the area's towns devoted their Saturday to preparations for May Day. Actually, within weeks, it was established that the world's worst nuclear accident would do little harm to the vast majority of those who were under its plume of radioactivity.

But then, the real lesson of Chernobyl is not that one needs to design and run such plants with a good deal of care. That's too obvious to detain us long, especially as thank goodness nothing like that disaster has happened since. It is much more interesting to note that mankind can live alongside even accidental nuclear radiation. We know this because he always has lived alongside much higher natural doses. To be precise: living in places like Cornwall, long-haul flights and medical X-rays are far more serious contributors to our total dose even than the World War II and post-war nuclear bomb blasts, and those far out rank anything nuclear power has produced by accident or design.

And yet we insist on mythologising radiation. Sure, it can seem spooky. It is invisible, insidious, invidious. Modern man delights in horror stories, and he prefers that they feature industrialised science. The modern Gothic was invented by The Romantics, who worshipped "naturalness" and demonised the man-made. Harnessing nuclear fission seems to many people the epitome of Promethean hubris the purest adventure into the unnatural.

In fact, it is entirely possible that nuclear power can provide us with electricity at less real inter-generational risk than is posed by burning fossil fuel. For this to be demonstrated, we will need to find ways of dealing with its "back-end". Chernobyl will be very important here.

Contrary to most people's understanding, the majority of Chernobyl's nuclear generating capacity was left untouched by the accident in 1986, when only one of the site's four reactors was destroyed. The other three were soon producing electricity again, and went on to do so until the last was shut down in 2000, more as a gesture of political correctness than from necessity.

So right now in Chernobyl, there is the radioactive waste from four reactors and one of those Unit 4, under its Sarcophagus - is in the most terrible state. This waste sits in an isolated, well-guarded exclusion zone where it has done little harm. But it is owned and must be managed by a poor country whose political future is unclear. The West takes an interest in the problem, but cash is tight, and the politics and diplomacy of the situation can be complicated.

And here's the fascinating problem. How much money and technology must be chucked at Chernobyl's "back end" its spent fuel and its contaminated plant? We may surprise ourselves by answering that less of either is needed than is sometimes supposed.

This matters because the West also has nuclear waste and redundant plant. How we dispose of it and at what price will be hugely important to whether the proponents of new nuclear power plants can make the case that their technology is economically and politically viable.

Chernobyl presents the most extraordinary opportunity. It can be the test-bed in which we discover whether nuclear power is a luxury only to be afforded by the rich - or can it be an almost routine development which can be handled by much poorer societies?

Richard D. North is the editor of www.chernobyllegacy.com. He is also the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.


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FYI: You might find http://RadDecision.blogspot.com to be an interesting portrait of the US nuclear industry. It includes both radiation basics and an in-depth comparison of Chernobyl versus western style plants.

Posted by: James Aach at March 1, 2006 02:20 AM
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