The unlikely afterlife of Chernobyl suggests that our nuclear nightmares might be somewhat exaggerated
On 26th April 1986, engineers at the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, a Soviet facility that is now in the Ukraine, tested a new cooling system designed to reduce the risk of a meltdown. In a bitter irony, this test actually caused a meltdown. The resulting explosion destroyed Chernobyl’s reactor 4. In the absence of the containment facilities that were standard at Western facilities, large quantities of radioactive gases began escaping into the atmosphere. The number of casulties that resulted from this accident are still disputed. However, it is universally agreed that it was the worst nuclear disaster in history.
One could be forgiven for assuming that – apart from the clean up, the grieving and the recriminations – that would be the end of the story of Chernobyl. In the popular imagination, the surrounding area was reduced to a wasteland fit only as a setting for zombie movies.
In fact, it was to continue generating power into the new millennium. As already mentioned it was reactor 4 that blew up in 1986. Even after the meltdown, reactors 1-3 remained capable of producing electricity and Ukraine still needed power. So for years afterwards people would come to work in the same plant that had irradiated much of Europe. The plant was given a less communist name, workers could no longer live in the immediate vicinity and work was required to contain reactor 4. But this not withstanding it remained a working power plant.
In 1991, Chernobyl’s dire safety record continued when a fire shut down reactor 2. Reactor 1 continued operating until 1996. The final reactor was eventually shut down in 2000. The process of decommissioning it continues to the present day – including the construction of a massive steel sarcophagus to encase the concrete sarcophagus which encases reactor 4.
I bring this fact up to illustrate that the impact of Chernobyl is perhaps not as apocalyptic as is supposed. As the environmentalist Mark Lynas notes:
In the popular imagination the area around Chernobyl is a blighted wasteland, a mental picture kept alive by the apocalyptic (and superlatively unscientific) myths put about by the likes of Greenpeace. Take the recent piece by the Observer’s Robin McKie, who – as far as I can tell – visited Chernobyl on a stage-managed Greenpeace press tour and penned an obedient piece titled ‘Chernobyl 25 years on: A poisoned landscape‘. Employing the traditional scary imagery, he writes:
The Ukrainian steppe is still frost-burned and the trees leafless at this time of year. There are no buds on branches and little hint of greenery, a combination that only enhances the eerie desolation inside the 30km exclusion zone around the reactor…
But the clue to why McKie saw a ‘poisoned landscape’ lies in the first sentence: he went in winter. When I visited last summer, I saw a very different scene – the vibrant profusion of vegetation was extraordinary, as was the noise of bird calls and buzzing insects. It seemed like life was exploding everywhere.
Lynas goes on to observe that the animals and plants around the site seem not to have suffered adverse effects from the radiation. And that as well as people who work or visit the site – including my younger brother – there is a community of people of people who flout the exclusion zone and continue to live near Chernobyl without apparent ill effect.
Even the fatalities from the accident don’t appear as alarming as might be suggested. The process for achieving the figures quoted by anti-nuclear activists of around a million fatalities has been likened by George Monbiot to those to used to ‘disprove’ climate change. The scientific consensus seems to place the real figure at something in the region of 4000. And these need to be offset against the casulties from the alternative energy source. For example, the World Health Organisation estimates that a million people are killed by coal every year every year.
HAT TIP: the excellent documentary Pandora’s Promise
N.B: The fact this post being about Ukraine is entirely co-incidental