The Western Nuclear Reports III: The Chernobyl Finesse

One area where the nuclear industry has been very successful in setting and dominating the agenda is the effects of radiation. They don’t have to worry about questions from the audience about two-headed fish.

 

There is a large body of authoritative scientific research on the effects of ionizing radiation. The overwhelming evidence is that low levels of radiation are not harmful and on the contrary could be good for humans and other organizations. Of course, high radiation exposures are harmful and can be fatal.  Industry spokespersons on radiation issues are very well informed and articulate.

 

A prime example in both reports is the treatment of the Chernobyl disaster which has become standard in the nuclear industry. The big push for this approach came from anti-nuclear idiots who attributed absurdly large numbers of casualties to this accident playing on mysterious but unscientific radiation effects. In response the IAEA and WHO jointly did a study that concluded that only 56 persons died of radiation sickness as a result of the accident and 4,000 of the 600,000 people evacuated may have life shortening radiation-induced illnesses in the years to come. That’s certainly a bad enough accident (or “incident” as they like to call it in the Saskatchewan report) but nothing like as serious as nuclear critics would imply.

 

Basically what I call the “Chernobyl finesse” is to imply that the only consequence of a nuclear accident is radiation sickness. By acknowledging the radiation deaths and injuries up front, the industry can ignore all the other consequences and by doing so even appear to be open.  There is no recognition of the immense societal and economic damage caused to the 100,000’s of people evacuated because of Chernobyl, people who lost their homes, jobs, schools, friends, and so on? How many cases of mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, marital breakdown, unemployment and other forms of human misery resulted? I have no data but I suspect the number of those deaths was much higher than 56 and more than 4,000 lives were shortened. The spin the nuclear industry gives to this issue is embodied in the old but tasteless joke:

 

Doctor: I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is what you’ve got is fatal. The good news is that it’s not cancer.

Patient: Thank God!

 

Even the Three Mile Island accident where the radiation emitted was negligible frightened some of the local people so much as to cause post traumatic stress disorders. I feel that travelling with the critics along the radiation-only-route is not only misleading but also unjustly puts an inhuman and uncaring face on the nuclear industry.

 

No, it’s not going to be the two-headed fish guy that the industry has to fear at public meetings rather it’s the gimlet-eyed money man who can talk fluently and convincingly about marginal costs, discount rates, value propositions, cost overruns and so on backed up by numbers from the nuclear industry’s record in terms of economic indices, costs and prices. Bad estimating and planning, poor cost control, chronic schedule slippage, and overall incompetent project management are the charges made against the industry. That’s the real killing ground in the nuclear argument and when the discussion moves there the radiation experts can only do their best “deer in the headlights” imitation.  

3 Responses to “The Western Nuclear Reports III: The Chernobyl Finesse”

  1. Randal Leavitt Says:

    The general understanding of nuclear power is influenced by many factors that tend to scare people. I find it interesting to note that these factors seem to be in full force in all countries all around the world. This leads me to suspect there are common features in human psychology that are everywhere triggered by these kinds of factors. I think we can see something of this in the fact that religious beliefs and practices exist everywhere without any objective evidence to support them. Things like radiation and immense amounts of energy seem to tickle our religious propensities in ways that produce fear. Public relations and advertising consultants would really like to know how all this works.

    Chernobyl was a depressing yet fascinating example of fear, greed, and callousness. Officials were seen sneaking out of town with their children before the general evacuation was announced. They abandoned their friends and neighbours, using their privileged information to give themselves an advantage and proving that deep down they did not believe the official line about safety and the technologies they were using. It is this kind of betrayal that causes ordinary people to distrust their government, and see the short term benefits of crime as something justifiable, even necessary, in a person eat person world. In my opinion, that is the ultimate negative consequence of the Chernobyl accident.

    What is needed to promote the increased use of nuclear fission power is a much more positive picture of what it will do for us. Discussions of nuclear power are always framed in a negative context. Someone claims it will kill us all in one way and someone counters that it wont kill all of us due to that cause. The discussion rolls on and on in technical incomprehensible jargon, always framed in negatives. All our visions of the future are dsytopian, so even if nuclear power does make it easier to move forward, the world we are moving forward to is scary, violent, and strange. Whether you see it as a second coming of god’s son, or 1984, nobody really wants to go there right now. What we need is a list of the benefits, the good aspects of the future, that nuclear fission will deliver us to. The lack of positivity makes nuclear technology difficult to promote. If you build a nuclear power generator in my area how do I benefit? Without a compelling positive story nuclear power remains something people figure they can live without.

  2. Sami Says:

    The root causes behind this exagerated fear of nuclear power stem from its initial introduction through nuclear weapons (Hiroshima & Nagazaki), then the deliberate propgation of nuclear fear by the defence industry to keep the super powers title and gain controls and keep smaller countries in line in spite of the fact it is a very stupid weapon. Then came the industry mess in terms of lacking international regulatory standards . Chernobyl, didn’t have containment, TMI didn’t have good emergency training procedures, in addition the site was running by ex-navy personnels while technical expertese are dominantly off-site. The sad comparison is, no similar media (and so called environmentalists ) attack was noted towards Chemical Industry following the Union Carbide disaster in Bohpal!!. We need education and public awarness of risks , what to accept and what to trade!.

  3. Dr Singh Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the assessment made by the article, although the social and behavioral impact of Chernobyl is nothing new.
    While 90% of people associate Chernobyl with very bad/ very dangerous, few realize:
    – only reactor 4 was damaged. remaining 3 continue to operate, and station produced power for 15 more years.
    – couple days after, hundred thousand soldiers (liquidators) were involved in reinforcing foundation to prevent colapse, dumping of boron/concrete to contain fire, and cleanup. Those filming/inspecting core, cleaning up radioactive graphite off the roof and in general breathing heavily the first few days before dust settled, died relatively quickly.
    – there are several types of ionizing isotopes (Iodine, Cesium etc), and staying indoors is not necessarily bad.
    – only relatively far away countries like Poland enforced iodine tablets to prevent thyroid cancers. Nevertheless, even though 4000+ children close to Chernobyl had thyroid issues, surgery was 97%+ effective.
    – finally, some elderly people that lived there, continue to live there, despite being harassed by soldiers.

    But, its not just people who lived in the evacuation area who continue to suffer depression and anxiety. Many people in Belarus, and other surrounding countries, continue to re-live the doom and gloom of Chernobyl everyday. Perhaps this is because radiation is not readily seen, and its effects not known to people, and scientists only reassure of “exponential decay”… so it never really disappears and individuals never get closure. Its not like sinking ship, crashing plane, or even volcano, where one can say with certainty what area (who) is affected and see the disaster occur and come to conclusion.


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