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 an even more consequential 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 helps answer this question. It also draws an unmistakable parallel to the current executive cabinet and its recent appointees. A town resident raises logical concerns about radiation exposure and is quickly silenced by an elder statesman: “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 rods overheating and a system 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 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, and especially in the face of global warming, there is no comparison. And yet public support for nuclear energy is rather underwhelming. Why?
In elementary school, before I had to shell out for the T.I.83, I remember punching in math formulas on my mom’s solar-powered calculator. Light-power evoked all sorts of futuristic dreams as a kid, and it stuck with me through college as I began my career in solar energy development. Just as clearly, I remember the cover of the calculator read: “No Nukes,” which instilled a lasting apprehension to the technology. The same power behind the anti-nukes movement slowed Federal funding for nuclear energy research and development during a crucial period in US history, resulting in the (lack of) support we see today. Yet despite lack of support (including difficult regulatory environments 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 a new energy future, a future that desperately needs Nuclear Power.
HOW URGENT IS OUR SITUATION?
Really urgent. Nine of the hottest global years on record have occurred since 2005. The last five years have been the five hottest ever. 100-year floods have wreaked havoc on cropland, and just last summer, California experienced the most devastating fire season on record. I remember the surreal haze of ash that landed like dirty snow on cars and sidewalks. In the outer sunset of San Francisco, it mixed with a dense ocean fog to blanket the city in a thin layer of sludge.
Watching the fourth episode of Chernobyl, I was reminded of that summer haze, as large Soviet trucks sprayed 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. Despite the incessant questioning of anthropogenic climate change, the planet is heating up. Each of these statements represent a consensus of experts, and 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. The world has built extraordinary amounts of solar and wind over the last twenty years, but it will not get the job done alone. The expansion of nuclear energy is essential to achieving deep decarbonization, and in the US, we must be careful to not fall behind. In terms of emission-free generation, nuclear plant retirements over the next two years could eliminate 80% of the progress we have made from renewables. A recent publication from the International Energy Agency demonstrates the exigent circumstances of US nuclear generation. Our pathway to a low-carbon future begins with informed citizens and governments.
Disregarding the scientific consensus of global warming 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 asked the same of the world’s leaders that many were asking after the Chernobyl accident. In her calm, forceful voice, she urged 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 miniseries, Mazen reminds us one last time of the perils of hopeful denialism through the protagonist Valery Legasov : “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”
Legasov 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.