Physicist: Chernobyl, Fukushima myths unfairly hurt nuclear power's image

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant | Courtesy of the IAEA
While the world's most notable nuclear-plant disasters, in Chernobyl and Fukushima, were devastating, they had more to do with ineptitude in one case, and Mother Nature in the other, rather than with any hazards of nuclear power, an Oxford researcher said.

Thirty years ago, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near Pripyat, Ukraine, suffered an explosion and fire at 1:23 a.m. during a systems test. Forty hours later, Pripyat residents were evacuated by order, and many suffered varying degrees of radiation poisoning. At least 43 people died as a direct consequence of the disaster.

The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant leak in 2011, triggered by an earthquake, reportedly claimed two lives instantly, with hundreds of thousands evacuated in the days that followed from Okuma, Japan, and the surrounding area.

Both incidents were classified as Level 7 events (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

But the absence of facts in discussions surrounding these disasters has caused widespread fear of nuclear power generation.

“Even now, widespread confusion over these disasters still blights rational discussion on energy production,” David Robert Grimes, a physicist and cancer researcher at Oxford University, wrote in an article published by U.K. Guardian newspaper. "Too often, the debate becomes needlessly acrimonious, reliant on rhetoric in lieu of facts. Yet as climate change becomes an ever-encroaching factor, we need, more than ever, to have a reasoned discussion on nuclear power. To this end, it’s worth dispelling some persistent myths.”

Chernobyl’s explosion, Grimes said, was caused by a mixture of “flawed design, disabled redundancies and a tragic disregard for experimental protocol.” The explosion occurred after workers attempted an emergency shutdown following a sudden and unexpected power surge during a systems test. The spike in power caused a reactor vessel rupture and a series of steam explosions, which exposed the graphite moderator of the reactor to air and set it ablaze.

Although the force of the explosion was dynamic, it was not a nuclear blast because it was caused by a conventional high-pressure failure due to excess steam, Grimes said.

“Contrary to all safety regulations, the roof of the reactor complex had been constructed with bitumen, which proved a highly flammable agent," Grimes said. "The burning, highly toxic graphite rods ignited at least five fires on the roof of the adjacent reactor. To compound matters further, the night shift and engineering chief squabbled over whether the reactor should be shut down. For several hours workers were in situ with minimal protection."

The widespread myth of the true cause of the disaster was in part due to the Soviet government's failure to admit fault and take action.

“Chernobyl was a perfect storm, a damning tale of ineptitude leading to needless loss of life. It was also unequivocally the world’s worst nuclear accident," Grimes said. "To many, it is also heralded as proof-positive that nuclear energy was inherently unsafe, a narrative adopted by many anti-nuclear groups."

Undeniably, many died from Chernobyl radiation poisoning – by 2006, 28 firefighters had died from acute radiation sickness and an additional 15 from thyroid cancer. However, according to a 2008 U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) report, there is “no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure,” Grimes said.

The public has been misguided by non-peer-reviewed reports claiming hundreds of thousands died as a result of the Chernobyl explosion.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant incident, unlike Chernobyl’s, was caused by a natural disaster – a deadly tsunami.

“The wall of rushing water flooded the Fukushima plant, water-logging the diesel generators that had been cooling the plant, resulting in the leakage of small amounts of nuclear waste product,” Grimes said.

Grimes said no one has died from the radiobiological consequences of Fukushima in the last five years, and it is unlikely that anyone will.

“The volume of radioactive leak from the site is so small as to be of no health concern; there is no detectable radiation from the accident in Fukushima grown-food, nor in fish caught off the coast,” Grime said. “This, of course, hasn’t stopped numerous organizations employing Fukushima as an anti-nuclear argument, despite the lack of justification for doing so.”

Interestingly, other notable disasters in energy generation don’t seem to garner as much fear as the disasters in nuclear power production – hundreds of thousands died when the Banqiao hydroelectric dam failed in China in 1975, and over 100 deaths have been reported in wind-power generation, not to mention at least 1.3 million people who are estimated to die each year from air pollution caused by fossil fuels, Grimes said.

Ultimately, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasizes that nuclear power must be considered to combat climate change, Grimes said.

“Nuclear energy is complicated, has drawbacks, and like any form of energy production, it has risks," Grimes said. "But it is also clean, safe and hugely efficient. If we truly want to have a rational discussion on how best to power our world, we need to confine ourselves to facts rather than fictions and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages without recourse to ill-founded ideological radiophobia. Our very future depends upon it.”

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