In the early morning of April 26, 1986, an explosion in the Chernobyl nuclear power reactor #4 released a radioactive plume which by nightfall had hurtled four miles into the atmosphere. An intense fire burned in the reactor core for ten days, continuously spewing radioactive particles and aerosols. Belarus, western Russia, and rich farmland of the Ukraine were immediately and severely contaminated. High winds carried tons of particles to many parts of Europe and throughout the Northern Hemisphere, blanketing 77,000 square miles with radioisotopes of iodine, cesium, strontium, and plutonium. The accident defied the nuclear industry’s risk assumptions and calculations, among them that a nuclear accident would happen slowly not like the runaway chain reaction at Chernobyl.
The consequences of Chernobyl are staggering. About 350,000 people were evacuated, many of whom continue to live in perpetual anxiety and uncertainty about the health effects of their radiation exposure. The Union of Liquidators (liquidators being first responders at disaster sites) estimates that 10 percent of 600,000 workers who participated in fighting the Chernobyl fire and sealing the site have died and 165,000 are disabled.
Estimates of cancer rates and deaths from Chernobyl vary greatly due to study assumptions, methods, geographical scope and politics. The highest estimate of overall mortality is 985,000 people, according to a recent compilation of more than 5000 studies. The lowest estimates derive from UN studies, where pro-nuclear politics limit and potentially corrupt their findings. These politics are girded by the 1959 agreement between the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Association in which both agencies may withhold confidential information where they deem it necessary.
Thousands of acres of prime agricultural land remain seriously contaminated in the former Soviet breadbasket region; as of 2007 nearly 400 sheep farms in the UK remained in quarantine from radioactive fallout. In many European countries restrictions on wild game, berries, mushrooms, and fish will remain in effect for decades, if not centuries.
Tens of billions of dollars were spent for disaster remediation, including a now crumbling, leaking concrete shelter over the still-radioactive reactor. Like a penniless funeral director, the European Union is soliciting funds from Europe, Russia, and the US to meet the shortfall in costs to erect a more stable structure over the the failed sarcophagus.
In March 2011, prior to the nuclear apocalypse of Japan's Fukushima power plant, former Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev published his lessons learned from Chernobyl. He calls the Chernobyl accident “a shocking reminder of the reality of the nuclear threat.” The nuclear power industry survives through secrecy and deceit, he wrote, having kept private “some 150 significant radiation leaks at nuclear power stations over the world.” He warns that the new and most dire threat to nuclear power is nuclear terrorism. The lessons Gorbachev culled from Chernobyl have compelled him to call for a quick transition to “efficient, safe and renewable energy which will bring enormous economic, social, and environmental benefits.”
The retrospective lessons of Chernobyl are strikingly akin to the lessons at hand from the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima nuclear reactors and storage pools. Catastrophic risk – no matter how low with improved design, siting, materials, safety systems, and trained operators – is inherent in nuclear power. Safer is nowhere near safe enough. For this reason the US government continues to assume liability for damages to life and property from a nuclear power accident above $12.6 billion and has proposed $36 billion in loan guarantees in 2012 for new nuclear plants. Without these entitlements the nuclear industry would collapse. Wall Street concurs: In 2009 Moody's Investor Services concluded that investment into nuclear power was a “bet the farm” risk.
Why gamble on the side of nuclear technology optimists who place their bets on future passive safety systems and pebble reactors when time is running out on the 60 year-old industry, economics is not on their side, and renewables are ready? Critically acclaimed studies, among them one from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and another conducted by researchers Jacobson and Delucchi at Stanford and University of California, Davis have laid out a roadmap for energy policy in the next two to four decades, using a mix of energy efficiency, wind, water, and solar technologies. The barriers to achieving a renewable national and global energy system are fundamentally political and social, not technological or economic.
For more than a century, opportunities to build a durable energy economy on renewables were passed by. The energy resource road taken – fossil fuels and nuclear -- has led us to Chernobyl, Fukushima, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, air and water pollution, Superfund sites, oil wars, and climate change. Where is our intergenerational solidarity? Where is environmental justice?
The fourth largest economy in the world, Germany, is accelerating its phaseout of nuclear power, which supplies one quarter of its energy, and shifting even more aggressively to renewable energy. This is, perhaps, the best news to come out of the dire situation in Fukushima.