Why Chernobyl should make you scared of everything except nuclear energy
The Chernobyl of our Time
Today more so than ever, media dramatizations shape how Americans stand on different issues. HBO’s five-part miniseries Chernobyl, will undoubtedly influence how people think about nuclear energy, and spark debate around the relative dangers of the technology. But this show is not about the risk of nuclear meltdown, it is about the much more significant peril of leaders clouding the truth. Craig Mazen’s portrayal of Chernobyl is a fitting historic analogy for the intentional, decades-long obfuscation of the scientific reality of anthropogenic climate change. As ironic as it may sound, Chernobyl is a frantic cry for the advancement of nuclear energy.
There’s a widely-accepted statistic, at risk of semantic satiation, that’s worth citing again: “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are due to human activities” (NASA). If you pause to consider what that means, it represents an extraordinary situation. Of the human population that holds a doctorate degree in the understanding of atmospheric interaction with the Biosphere, we have reached an unprecedented consensus. What then, is the foundation of our hesitancy to act?
There is a scene from the first episode of Chernobyl that sets the stage for the rest of the series and draws an unmistakable parallel to any number of meetings between Trump and recent appointees. A town resident raises logical concerns about radiation exposure and is quickly silenced by an elder statesman who replaces fears of radiation with hope for soviet heroism: “people should simply be told to keep their minds on their labor and leave matters of the State to the State… contain the spread of misinformation  we will all be rewarded for what we do here tonight.” As the scene cuts to radioactive steam billowing from the exposed reactor core, this poignant depiction of hopeful denialism is all too reminiscent of today’s war on environmental progress.
What actually happened?
As the show plays out, the viewer begins to understand the full story behind the Chernobyl accident. In its simplest (very simple) explanation, nuclear energy is produced by mixing water with reactor fuel rods (enriched Uranium-235 generating heat through fission), which produce steam to spin a turbine and create electricity. Russia’s now-defunct RBMK technology (the reactor type at Chernobyl) did just that. On the night of the disaster, a recklessly run routine test mixed with a non-failsafe system design, led to fuel rod overheating and failure. The resulting steam explosion blew the reactor (including its graphite and fuel) out of the containment building and into the surrounding environment (see this World Nuclear article for a detailed explanation of the accident). 31 people died from the direct exposure to acute radiation at the time of the accident. From the UN and WHO investigations, an estimated 2,200 radiation-caused deaths are expected from the incident, though the final numbers are debated.
Will it happen again?
There are 10 RBMK reactors operating today in Russia, which have undergone safety modifications since the 1980s. The US currently operates 98 commercial light-water reactors (LWR, a different technology), supplying roughly 20% of the US energy mix. This fleet has operated since 1958 without fatality. These LWRs, and all modern nuclear reactors, are designed as failsafe systems, meaning they revert to a stable condition in the event of a breakdown or malfunction. The likelihood of a Chernobyl-equivalent in the US is exceedingly low. In the worst commercial nuclear power plant accident in US history (the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island), no one was killed or exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
Coal and oil mining accidents, explosions/toxic spills from pipelines, and emissions of NOX, SOX and PM2.5 from fossil fuel combustion kill more than half a million per year. All of this is before considering the possible death toll from rising sea levels, fires, droughts, and severe weather events from rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Nuclear energy does not produce CO2 or GHGs of any kind. From a humanitarian standpoint, there is no comparison. We are simply afraid of what we do not understand.
In elementary school, before I had to shell out for the T.I. 83, I remember doing math problems on my mom’s solar-powered calculator. I thought it was magic, and it stuck with me throughout college as I began to explore a career in solar development. But just as clearly, I remember the case of that calculator, which read: “No Nukes,” which instilled in me a lasting apprehension to the technology. This fearful indoctrination also slowed Federal funding for nuclear energy research and development during a crucial period in US energy development. Yet despite a difficult regulatory environment and funding challenges, nuclear energy technology has come a long way since Chernobyl was commissioned 42 years ago. Advanced nuclear reactors are smaller, inherently safer, cheaper to build, and produce less uranium waste (many reactors are capable of using spent fuel rods as feedstock). The business models and reactor designs of Nuscale Power, Oklo, and Kairos Power, are harbingers of that energy future.
How Urgent is our situation?
Really urgent. Nine of the 10 hottest global years on record have occurred since 2005. The last five years have been the five hottest ever. Last summer, California experienced the most devastating fire season on record. Ash covered the Teslas parked on the side streets of San Francisco, mixing with a dense ocean fog to blanket the city in a thin layer of sludge.
In the last scenes of the fourth episode, large trucks spray decontamination fluid “bourda” across the streets of Pripyat, creating a coating of sludge across everything in its path.
Despite the dramatization of Chernobyl, nuclear energy is not dangerous, and despite the incessant questioning of anthropogenic climate change, the planet is heating up. That is the opinion of experts. When we ignore professionals in their own field of expertise, we undermine and discourage a democratic system of informed decision-making. True decarbonization of our economy will take much more than virtual corporate power purchase agreements and mandates for solar panels on every new home in CA. It will mean carbon-free energy for transport, heating, and the rapidly expanding global electric grid. It will mean massive amounts of carbon-free energy to sequester atmospheric carbon and reduce concentrations from 415ppm back to pre-industrial levels. We’ve brought a lot of solar and wind online over the last ten years especially, but it will not get the job done alone. The expansion of nuclear energy, not the roll-back of our current fleet, is our only feasible option for making that happen. And yet in terms of emission-free generation, early nuclear plant retirements over the next two years will wipe out 80% of the progress we have made with renewables in the United States. A recent publication from the International Energy Agency demonstrates the exigent circumstances of US nuclear generation.
Democracy is built around the contributions of its citizens and experts. To disregard the scientific consensus of global warming and the warning all around us is a public disservice with lasting consequences. In the first four minutes of Greta Thunberg’s address at the Austrian World Summit in Vienna last week, she asks the same of the world’s leaders that many were asking after the Chernobyl accident. In her calm, forceful voice, she urges her audience to “change the way we talk about climate change, and call it what it is, an emergency. You have to explain that to us no matter how uncomfortable it may be.” It is a moving reminder that as politicians, actors, pundits, parents, friends, and as influencers of any kind, what we say can have an enduring effect.
In the final part of the series, Mazen reminds us one final time of the perils of hopeful denialism through the physicist and protagonist Valery Legasov: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”
Legasov (and Ulana Khomyuk) is our scientific community, frustrated by inaction.
We must listen to science if we are to avoid a fiery end to our own story.
This article was written by 2019 CELI Fellow, Forrest Carroll.