Chernobyl : 30 years later, nothing has been learned

From ToxicLeaks

30 years ago, on April 26th 1986, the worst nuclear disaster of all times happened in Ukraine and contaminated the whole European continent. The explosion of a nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant led to the immediate deaths of over 30 people, the evacuation of over 350,000 inhabitants and to countless cases of cancer. The Chernobyl catastrophe was an incontrovertible proof that nuclear energy is not only expensive and dirty when everything goes according to plan, it's also incredible dangerous and should be discarded immediately. However, the lessons from Chernobyl haven't been learned by everybody and nuclear plants continue to put millions of people at risk everyday.

An unsafe plant that had been dangerous for years before it blew up[edit | edit source]

The Chernobyl nuclear plant was built at the end of the 1970' and at the beginning of the 1980'. Its first reactor was finished in 1977 and three others followed, the last was completed in 1983. But from the start it was a very dangerous plant because its cooling system wasn't up to the task of preventing the core of the plant from melting in case there was a problem. To put it this way, using nuclear fission to make electricity is like getting a T-Rex to pull your trailer car, its incredibly powerful but also very hard to control, and if you lose control the consequences can be bloody, which is why nuclear energy is such a terrible idea. So, let's say something goes wrong in a nuclear plant, the plant technicians pull the switch and stop triggering the chain reaction that produces heat and therefore electricity.

But the nuclear fuel doesn't stop heating just yet because there is a big amount of residual heat that, if unchecked, can melt the core and threaten to destroy the whole reactor. That's why you need cooling systems, and the Chernobyl plant had cooling pumps ready to pour cool water on the nuclear fuel to prevent a meltdown. The thing is, the pumps need energy too, and if the reactor has been shut down, it's not generating electricity anymore, so the cooling pumps had diesel generators as a backup energy source. However, the generators were quite slow and in case of emergency, the pumps could only reach full power after over a minute which was too long of course. So basically, the Chernobyl plant was running for almost a decade without an adequate cooling system and a disaster could have happened at any time... But the most ironic part is that the explosion didn't come from this lack of a safe cooling system, but from an attempt to fix the problem !

A safety test that went horribly wrong[edit | edit source]

One of the most scary things about the Chernobyl catastrophe is that the procedure that set off the disaster was actually a safety test. Which means that even when nuclear technicians are trying to make nuclear energy safe, it can escape their control and wreak havoc. The insufficient cooling systems lived on for nearly a decade but the technicians of the nuclear plant attempted to fix it several times by using the steam from the reactor with steam turbines. However, several attempts in 1982, 1984 and 1985 weren't conclusive, the turbines weren't efficient enough to produce the power needed to activate the pumps while the diesel generators warmed up. That's why a new test was organised in 1986. But it went horribly wrong because of human mistakes. The protocol of the test planned that the reactor should be running at low power, to make sure the heat wasn't to great to handle.

But unexpectedly, the plant was required to maintain power output as another power station of the area stopped working. The test was therefore postponed to a few hours later but the preparation was hastened and led to a very unstable reactor configuration that would prove catastrophic during the test. Indeed, the steam turbines only powered the water pumps for a few tens of seconds and then they started slowing down which led to a buildup of steam in the generator as the water was instantly turned into steam. Furthermore, the nuclear fuel continued to heat up because of the lack of cooling water, which created even more steam. At that moment, had the preparation of the test been adequate, the operators of the plant should have been able to counteract this process by limiting the temperature rise with control rods, but some of the rods were not available and the reactor spiraled out of control, reaching a power output of 30,000 MW, ten times the power it normally creates. The increased steam pressure was eventually too big and caused an explosion that tore the reactor asunder. A few seconds later, a second explosion, even more violent, was heard and released massive amounts of radioactive matter into the air. This second explosion was insanely powerful, the equivalent of 10 tons of TNT, and therefore it can only have been a nuclear explosion.

A catastrophe worse than Hiroshima[edit | edit source]

According to the Russian physicist, the disaster was even worse than the nuclear attacks suffered by Japan in 1945. “Worse than Hiroshima. That was only one bomb, whereas here the amount of radioactive substances released was ten times greater, plus half a ton of plutonium.” The crews sent to assess the damage and contain the leaks were exposed to fatally high levels of radiation and died within a few weeks. These people were sent to their deaths without being told what had happened.

Volodymyr Pravik, one of the firefighters who was sent to extinguish the fires, said he thought he was fighting an ordinary electrical fire : "We didn't know it was the reactor. No one had told us." He died a few weeks after the explosion, from radiation sickness. In the area of the plant, the city of Pripyat wasn't informed either of the scope of the disaster. The inhabitants continued to go about their business but many started feeling ill, and were subject to fits of coughing and vomiting. It wasn't until the next day, after 50 people had been hospitalized and 2 had died, that the evacuation was decided. First it was only the city of Pripyat, then all the people in a 30 mile radius zone were evacuated. 116,000 people, moved from their homes, and dozens dead, all because of the recklessness of the managers of the plant.

Massive effects felt throughout Europe[edit | edit source]

The effects of the radioactive pollution were felt in a 100,000 km² area. The most severely hit places were in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine but other areas of Europe were struck as well. 15 % of the land in Belarus and 6 % of the land in Ukraine was contaminated by the radioactive cloud. This led to important malformations in animals of the area impacted by the pollution. In some areas of Ukraine, for example, the number of animals born with missing or additional limbs, eyes, ribs or deformed skulls was about 100 times higher in the years that followed the explosion. This impact was also important in people.

The children of the liquidators that worked to clean up the plant had 7 times more DNA mutations than their older siblings born before their fathers had been exposed to the radiations. Overall, 56 people died because of the Chernobyl catastrophe, among which 15 children that developed thyroid cancer because of the disaster. 4000 more cancer deaths are expected in the upcoming decades. However, the full extent of the health impacts of the catastrophe was hid from the European population. Just like the French authorities lied when they said that the radioactive cloud caused by the explosion had stopped at the French border, there was a general cover-up to downplay the effects of the catastrophe and spare the reputation of the nuclear industry that would still be used for decades despite the immense risks it still causes for the Europeans.

The nuclear energy should have been stopped after Chernobyl, it wasn't[edit | edit source]

The Chernobyl disaster should have been a wake up call for the world, the proof that nuclear energy isn't safe, that no matter how hard you try to build safety systems, a human mistake can always create a large scale catastrophe. The nuclear industry continued to grow despite Chernobyl. In 1974, nuclear plants produced 4 % of world electricity, in 2007, it had grown to 14 % ! This evolution was mainly due to some countries like the U.S., France, Japan or Canada, that invested massively in nuclear energy. Some countries like France rely enormously on nuclear energy : 77 % of France's electricity comes from nuclear plants !

The World Nuclear Association, a powerful nuclear lobby, claims that the arrival of third-generation nuclear plants in the late 1990' is the reason that explains the growth of the sector. However the catastrophe that happened in Fukushima in March 2011 proves that nuclear plants aren't safe, that it's impossible to predict all the situations that can happen and that when things go wrong in a nuclear plant, they go terribly wrong and lead to countless deaths, diseases and long term environmental pollution.

Insufficient maintenance enhances the risk of a new catastrophe in Ukraine[edit | edit source]

And the particular situation of nuclear energy is still a huge cause for concern. First of all because the exclusion zone is not empty at all. 3000 workers are building the new confinement casing and are exposed to dangerous levels of radiations. Worse, hundreds of people still live in the area. These are mostly elderly people and the Ukrainian government has callously decided to tolerate their illegal presence in the area even though it will lead to their untimely deaths. And this population is gradually dying out. Moreover, the remaining nuclear plants in Ukraine are a great danger for the Ukrainians and all the Europeans.

Many of the Ukrainian power plants have been built in the Soviet Area and their lifespan has been prolonged to increase power output, but they have the same structural flaws the Chernobyl plant had and are just as dangerous. This danger in enhanced by the fact that the Ukrainian nuclear power operators are not conducting enough safety tests to make sure the nuclear plants are risk-free ! Finally, these old and unsafe nuclear plants are in the middle of a civil war ! In 2014, a revolution brought to power pro-western leaders in Kiev and strained the relations between Western Ukraine and Eastern Ukraine, that has a stronger link to Russia. This has led to war between insurgents from the East that want to join Russia, and the central government.

And this is incredibly dangerous for the nuclear plants. For example, in December 2015, pro-Kiev activists wished to retaliate against the secession of Crimea and blowed up the power lines that linked the peninsula to the rest of the country. But this nearly created a disaster, because the nuclear plant of Mykolaiv was cut off from the electric grid. And nuclear plants need electricity from without to function ! So this nearly created a meltdown inside the plant, just like what happened in Fukushima ! This is a huge risk for the Ukrainians and all Europeans and the only way to mitigate it is to end the use of nuclear energy in Ukraine and shift towards cleaner and safer energies !

The 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe is a stark reminder of the perils of nuclear energy. The disaster was more violent than Hiroshima and led to dozens of deaths, thousands of cancer cases and a long term contamination of thousand of km². However, the lessons haven't been learned. Nuclear energy is still in use in many countries and the nuclear plants of Ukraine are an especially big threat to the safety of the country and its neighbors.