Friday, April 20, 2012

Chernobyl's Tragedy-Induced Lessons

Chernobyl's Tragedy-Induced Lessons


by H. Patricia Hynes


April 19, 2012


Published by Portside


April 26 is the 26th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear

catastrophe. Given recent government approval of new nuclear

power plant construction in Georgia and South Carolina, it's

edifying to review Mikhail Gorbachev's seasoned reflections

on nuclear power.


In 2011 Gorbachev published Chernobyl 25 Years Later: Many Lessons Learned.


In his retrospective, he cited three foremost lessons:

needed public oversight of the secretive and deceptive

nuclear industry; the new threat of terrorism to nuclear

plants; and the urgency of building a secure energy future,

from solar, wind and water. His statement could be construed

as an aging statesman's apologia for his role in the Soviet

Union's secrecy and slow response to the world's worst

industrial accident, prior to Fukushima.  After all, it was

Sweden who alerted the world, not the Soviet Union; and

Gorbachev endangered residents by delaying evacuation.


Seventy tons of combusted nuclear fuel and 700 tons of

radioactive graphite blanketed the disaster site. Belarus,

western Russia, and rich farmland of the Ukraine were

severely contaminated. Fearful of acute food shortages,

Soviet authorities relaxed permissible levels of

radioactivity in agricultural land.(1) Winds carried 50 tons

of fine particles to many parts of Europe and throughout the

Northern Hemisphere, blanketing 77,000 square miles with

radioisotopes of iodine, cesium, strontium, and plutonium.

Hunting, fishing and foraging remain restricted in many

contaminated regions of mainland Europe and the British



The cost of Chernobyl - in death and illness, as well as

social cynicism and anomie - is incalculable. Distrust of

Soviet authorities grew so rapidly following the accident

that many affected people refused to take protective

potassium-iodide pills belatedly distributed by the

government. (1) In 2006 the Ukrainian Heath Minister

reported that more than 2.4 million Ukrainians suffered

health effects from the Chernobyl catastrophe. The highest

estimate of overall mortality from the Chernobyl explosion

and fire during the period April 1986 to the end of 2004 is

985,000 people. And some analysts attribute the collapse of

the Soviet Union beginning in 1989 to the "psychic blow" of

Chernobyl: nuclear power had the status of a "sacred cow";

its cadre of engineers and administrators, a sacred caste.



Gorbachev does not mince words, calling Chernobyl a

"tragedy...beyond comprehension" and "a shocking reminder of

the reality of the nuclear threat." Unbeknownst to most

people, he writes, there have been "some 150 significant

radiation leaks at nuclear power stations over the world."

He now works to implement his tragedy-induced lessons. As

Founding President of Green Cross International, with

branches in 31 countries, he heads the international Climate

Change Task Force to help ensure a just, sustainable and

secure future.


Like Gorbachev, the ex-Prime Minister of Japan Naoto Kan,

who resigned in the wake of disastrous management of the

Fukushima nuclear emergency, has become a critic of nuclear

power and an apostle of renewable technologies. Government

and industry secrecy about the extremity of the Fukushima

crisis, crisis chaos and mis-management, and false pride in

its technological prowess that perpetuated a myth of nuclear

safety - all risked destroying his country, says Nan.  With

other Japanese lawmakers he is launching a group "to create

a roadmap for ending the country's reliance on nuclear



Chernobyl and Fukushima abound with morbid lessons - about

unmanageable nuclear accidents; myths of nuclear safety;

human and environmental costs far exceeding energy benefits;

and blinding technological hubris. Some countries are

heeding them and abandoning nuclear power, among them

Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland.

Others are not: the US has re-licensed nearly more than 70

aging nuclear plants and supports new plants, as if we have

some God-given immunity to human and technical accidents and

uncertainties. The industry's grip on government persists,

despite the unequivocal admission by the recently retired

CEO of Exelon - a nuclear heavyweight and strong contributor

to Obama - that nuclear power is not economically viable. If

as some allege, the US is destined by our cultural history

of muscular technical prowess and frontier mentality in

space and elsewhere, then why not direct our vaunted

technical pragmatism to aggressively building secure and

affordable renewable energy systems?


Carbon-free, nuclear-free future


How can we achieve a carbon-free, nuclear-free future? For

one, the U.S. can emulate the commitment to conservation,

mandatory green building design, renewable energy

technologies and fuel efficient practices in Europe, which

has reduced the average carbon use per capita to one-half

that of the average American. Europe has three times the

wind power of the U.S., and photovoltaic capacity has grown

by 70 percent annually in recent years. Renewables fuel 40

percent of Sweden's energy needs and 20 percent of Germany's

electricity compared to 11 percent of U.S. electricity (most

from biomass and hydropower) in 2011. Solar and wind

comprise nearly one-half of all new electricity generation

in Europe. Recycled energy from cogeneration (combined heat

and power) systems constitute from 20 to 50 percent of

energy use in many European countries compared to 8 percent

in the U.S. The fuel standard for European vehicles is 50

mpg by 2012 compared to the U.S. average of 35.5 mpg by

2016. The EU has earmarked more than three times the amount

of money for high-speed trains than the Obama

administration. Were the United States to achieve the fuel

economy standards of Europe, demand for oil would drop by an

estimated 20 percent - an urgent thought given the oil

pollution tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico and climate change

upon us.


A critically acclaimed study, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free:

A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, prepared by the Nuclear

Policy Research Institute and the Institute for Energy and

Environmental Research, lays out a carbon-free and nuclear-

free roadmap for U.S. energy policy. The study analyzes more

than 25 available and nearly available renewable

technologies, green building design, high efficiency

vehicles and fuels for readiness for large-scale use, next

steps for large-scale implementation, and CO2 abatement

costs. The overarching finding is that "a zero-CO2 energy

economy can be achieved within the next thirty to fifty

years without the use of nuclear power." Further, the study

found that eliminating CO2 emissions can be achieved with

"available or foreseeable technologies," at affordable cost,

without buying carbon credits from other countries, and with

phasing out oil imports within 25 years.


Likewise, 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, according to the authors, are fundamentally

political and social, not technological or economic.

Security analyst Michael Klare wrote recently, we are at a

crossroads - one being to cannibalize environmental

legislation and "gain access to additional stores of

[difficult to get] oil and gas...on coastal and wilderness

areas"; the other is intense and substantial investment in

renewable energies.


We Americans need a revolution in carbon-free nuclear-free

conservation, efficiency, and renewable technology scenarios

to assure they are developed and implemented for local

control, with democratic values, and freed from

multinational control and militaristic dual uses.  It's a

technical and moral debt we owe the world, as the largest

overconsumer of the world's finite resources and the

instigator of nuclear power in the guise of "atoms for





1. Stephanie Cooke (2009) In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary

History of the Nuclear Age.  London and New York:





[H. Patricia Hynes is a retired Professor of Environmental

Health from Boston University School of Public Health and

current Chair of the Board of the Traprock Center for Peace

and Justice. She has written and edited 7 books, among them

The Recurring Silent Spring. She writes and speaks on issues

of war and militarism with an emphasis on women,

environment, and public health.]




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