Chernobyl and Nuclear Power

Normally I agree with Sean Guillory when he writes about Russian and ex-Soviet affairs, but I must take issue with the penultimate paragraph of his latest post:

In addition, what is more disconcerting is that the lesson of Chernobyl and the dangers of nuclear power have fallen on deaf ears. Nuclear power is considered acceptable again, not only in Russia, but the US, and of course in Iran. Unfortunately, nuclear power, whether it be fore energy or in its weaponized form is still with us.

This view of nuclear power is common, but mistaken.  A lesson of Chernobyl is not that nuclear power generation is too dangerous to be considered an option, and the risks incurred are too great. For what happened in Chernobyl was a consequence of combining nuclear power with operating procedures, designs, state interference, and umpteen other factors which do not and will not be allowed by any responsible nuclear power operators now or in the future.  For instance:

1.  The design of the Soviet nuclear reactor was fundamentally flawed, and this was a huge factor in the resulting explosion.  Even at the time of the accident, Western reactor designs were fundamentally different, and therefore the chain of events which led to the initial explosion in Chernobyl would be impossible to replicate in a Western reactor.

2.  The Chernobyl plant operators and engineers were not suitably qualified, experienced, or trained to operate and maintain a nuclear power plant.  They were also deliberately not fully informed about the known design flaws and potential hazards associated with operating the reactor, specifically at low power levels.  This degree of incompetence and mismanagment is thankfully absent from Western nuclear power plants.

3.  The operators at Chernobyl were able to disable multiple safety systems and conduct an unauthorised experiment which disregarded all the operating procedures and requirements therein, an experiment which lead directly to the explosion in the Chernobyl reactor.  Recklessness of this kind is very easy to eradicate, and is absent from Western power plants.

4.  In order to cut costs, the reactor housing was able to offer only partial containment in an emergency, rather than full containment as in Western power stations.

There is more than enough evidence to demonstrate that nuclear power generation when carried out properly and responsibly is extremely safe, and accidents such as the one in Chernobyl are entirely avoidable.  For example, the two major users of nuclear power, France and Japan, use vastly different reactor designs from the one in Chernobyl, they ensure their operators are dedicated professionals who have the required support and training, and they do not allow their operators to throw the operating manual in the bin and start experimenting.  It is of little surprise that neither country has experienced an accident which resulted in a release of radioactive material, and it is also of little surprise that no similar accident has occurred anywhere in the past 20 years.

There are many lessons to be learned from Chernobyl, and having started my engineering career in the nuclear industry, I am fairly convinced that nearly all of them have been well learned by those in the West responsible for the operations and maintenance of nuclear power stations.  As lessons were learned when several Comet aircraft unzipped their fuselages and fell from the sky, so engineers learned from the accident at Chernobyl; or, more accurately, had their initial ideas confirmed:  that nuclear power plants must be designed correctly, installed and commissioned correctly, and operated correctly by experienced professionals.  The greatest lesson to take from the Chernobyl disaster is that these basics cannot be circumvented at any time, and thankfully those in the West responsible for operating nuclear reactors safely knew these lessons well before 1986 and haven’t forgotten them in the 20 years since.

To use Chernobyl as a reason to abandon nuclear power is like using the Titanic  as a reason to discontinue all shipping.  It is of utmost importance to ensure that accidents similar to Chernobyl do not occur again, but this is not to be achieved by throwing out the baby with the bathwater by abandoning nuclear power altogether.

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7 Responses to Chernobyl and Nuclear Power

  1. Mark Holland says:

    Mr Burns: That was close, we turned a potential Chernobyl into a mere Three Mile Island.

  2. Sean says:

    I don’t have a rational counter argument that is based in any real knowledge about nuclear power. Admittedly, my rejection of it is based on a fear of nuclear war, something I had nightmares about as a kid. I could never watch that stupid nuclear holocaust movie the Day After, starring that grand actor Steve Guttenberg until I was like 20 or something. So for better or worse my opposition to nuclear power is based on fear.

    I do however disagree with the Titanic analogy. When the Titanic sank, it didn’t have a direct effect on the inhabitants and ports for generations. It might have had a psychological effect on passenger cruising. But the danger of nuclear power/weapons can be seen in two examples–Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Chernobyl. Not only was the scope of devastation wide, the effects of that devastation continue to the present, whether they be psychological or physical.

    Now perhaps you and many others are correct that nuclear power is much safer than before. That does bring me some comfort since it doesn’t seem to be going away. But concerns remain and anniversaries like Chernobyl do present the opportunity of discussion and reflection.

    I do have two questions though. I remember reading somewhere that one of the problems of nuclear power is that the costs of a running a plant exceeds the return on energy. Is this true?

    Second, one issue here in California is the fact that the plants take an enormous amount of sea water, bringing concerns of nuclear waste. We also have a big issue here about where to dump of nuclear waste. What is your opinion about how to deal with this concern?

    Oh, and thanks for reading! And I assume that you are enjoying Night of Stone?

  3. browler says:

    Agree with this post (despite also agreeing with the first sentence!).
    Thanks

  4. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » Belarus, Ukraine: Chernobyl Meaning

  5. Tim Newman says:

    When the Titanic sank, it didnt have a direct effect on the inhabitants and ports for generations.

    That is true, yes.

    But the danger of nuclear power/weapons can be seen in two examplesHiroshima and Nagasaki and Chernobyl.

    I think you’re making a huge mistake in treating nuclear weapons and nuclear power as interchangeable. IMO, they should be kept completely apart and dealt with separately.

    I remember reading somewhere that one of the problems of nuclear power is that the costs of a running a plant exceeds the return on energy. Is this true?

    I’m not sure, but I’d hazard a guess that the returns on investment already expended on nuclear power are probably slim. However, this money has already been spent and future generations of nuclear power will be able to build on the knowledge gained from this expenditure. Nuclear power should therefore be much cheaper to generate than it was in the past.

    We also have a big issue here about where to dump of nuclear waste. What is your opinion about how to deal with this concern?

    I’ve got no idea. :) The disposal of the waste is a big problem, but I’d treat this separately from the safe operation of a nuclear plant.

    Oh, and thanks for reading!

    The pleasure’s all mine!

    And I assume that you are enjoying Night of Stone?

    Very much so, thanks.

  6. Going Nuclear: “In the early 1970s when I helped found Greenpeace, I believed that nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust, as did most of my compatriots. That’s the conviction that inspired Greenpeace’s first voyage up the spectacular rocky northwest coast to protest the testing of U.S. hydrogen bombs in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Thirty years on, my views have changed, and the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.” [Patrick Moore]

  7. Alexei says:

    In two words, Chernobyl taught the world how not to run a nuclear power plant, though at an enormous cost.

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