4 May 2006
Why Nuclear Power is a Non-Response to Peak Oil – Part 3 – because if it Goes Wrong it Goes Really Really Wrong…
At James Lovelock’s recent talk I attended at Dartington, he was asked by the enraged woman in front of me how he could possibly justify nuclear power in the light of what happened at Chernobyl. She worked with children from the area, and felt he had downplayed the scale of what happened there. He replied rather glibly that only 70 people had died there, and they were mostly the firemen and emergency services people who attended the fire, but that no-one else had died that could be directly linked to the disaster. His point was that far more people died in London in the 1950s from inhaling coal fumes and other pollutants, and that the C02 from burning fossil fuels could ultimately kill us all. This appalling dismissal of extensive human misery has recently been challenged.
The BBC recently reported that a new study from Greenpeace has put the figure of deaths that can be directly attributed to the Chernobyl accident at actually more like 93,000. The figure is more than 10 times the estimate that the UN put forward of 9,000. The reason for the discrepency is that the UN study only looked at the area immediately around Chernobyl, while the Greenpeace study looks at all of Europe.
Indeed the Greenpeace figure of 93,000 is their estimate of actual fatalities, only about one-third of their figure of 270,000 for the total number of cases of cancer. The initial study by the UN was criticised for not looking at the full picture, and rightly so. It is similar to studies on the side effects of vaccination which define a health problem directly caused by the vaccination as one which appears in less than 14 days from the date of vaccination. Therefore many problems that arise after that time are dismissed as being unconnected, making mass immunisation seem less harmful than it is (but that’s another argument altogether!).
A recent programme on BBC Radio 4, which is unfortunately no longer on their website, called Chernobyl Story, visited the area 20 years after the disaster with a woman who had been born their but had not been back since the explosion there. It was very moving, but the thing that struck me most was the interview with the man who was the head of the emergency services operation on the day. He said that he regarded the explosion not as a disaster but as a success, because it showed how human ingenuity had stopped the accident being far, far worse than it actually was. He intended to mark the 20th annniversary by meeting some old colleagues at the site and drinking champagne.
To state that Chernobyl was a trivial accident and that only 70 people died is outrageous. What actually happened was that the disaster spread radioactive material across Europe, several million people still live incontaminated areas, and 270,000 people may contract some form of cancer as a result of it, of which 90,000 may well die. This is not a minor event. This was an outrage and something which every effort should be made to avoid repeating.
Some people argue that Chernobyl was somehow the ‘bad apple’ that somehow tarnishes the name of all other nuclear plants, as though it was a one-off accident. Wikipedia features a list of nuclear accidents which I suspect is only scratching the surface, and is of course only the ones that made it into the public domain. Within every nuclear power station is a potential for disaster and destruction that it completely unacceptable. Lovelock, whose book seems to now be seen as the definite argument for nuclear power, is wrong, nuclear power is dirty, dangerous and is not in any way a part of a sustainable energy future.