CHERNOBYL. TWENTY YEARS ON.
It’s twenty years today since a combination of bad design, faulty equipment, managerial incompetence and human error caused the reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine to melt down and render the city and much of the surrounding area uninhabitable because of radiation. It’s not generally realised but there are still farms in the NW of England which are so heavily polluted by fall-out caused by rain showers washing atmospheric pollution down that they are prohibited from selling their produce.
Mention Atomic or Nuclear Power and the two images that spring to most people’s minds are the mushroom clouds of the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ruined reactor in its crumbling sarcophagus at Chernobyl.
Allow me to take a leap sideways here and look at modern attitudes to risk management and assessment. The Western developed world is populated mainly by people who have never experienced major disaster. This is the reason why relatively small loss of life such as the Twin Towers, the London Bombings or a hurricane in New Orleans cause such a furore. The chances of being affected by BSE were less than winning the national lottery but look at the reaction it caused. I know that many people will be repelled by my attitude and I apologise for disturbing you but recognise that I am 70 years old, I was reared under bombardment, I remember WW2. I am also a historian and I am aware of the Influenza epidemic of 1913/14 which killed over 50million people and the Black death of the 14th century that killed approximately 50% of the population of Europe. The vast majority of people living in the west have no experience of death on this scale and therefore have a different attitude towards risk management. Safe to them means absolute certainty of security, I have no such concept of ‘safe’, my experience and research convinces me that there is no certainty, it is a balance of risk.
There is another factor we should look at, good news doesn’t sell newspapers. For newspapers read modern media. We are blessed by wonderful means of communication, I can sit here in my kitchen and write my NOPS and communicate them instantly by technology which means that everyone in the world can access my ramblings. Unfortunately this has a downside, the bad news, however trivial in historic terms, is equally accessible. A loopy conspiracy theory can circle the globe in nano seconds as can news of twenty people killed in a terrorist bombing. The main criterion for acceptance of these pieces of information seems to be a combination of shock value and how useful they are to the seats of power in forwarding their policies. In this way, a relatively minor threat can wipe consideration of major ongoing threats off the news pages. I don’t think it is any coincidence that these major threats are the ones over which our leaders think they have no control.
Consider the numbers of people killed in the selective minor threats experienced by the West and than balance against this the numbers of less well off people dying daily from malaria, AIDS, starvation and power struggles over resources. Take two major threats the developed countries face, the looming energy shortage and global warming.
Right, now back to Chernobyl, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There is a debate going on in the world as to how we can best address the problems of energy and global warming. One fact is blindingly obvious, the only practical technology we possess that addresses both of these problems is nuclear power. So why aren’t we ten years into a programme of building modern nuclear power plants to help solve both problems? I think that it is down entirely to perceived risk and the reluctance of politicians to bite the bullet because of fear of public reaction. My argument is that this ‘public reaction’ is not based on rational thinking and sound risk assessment but on gut reaction and the need for concrete guarantees of safety which I don’t believe can ever exist.
Take a look at the historical evidence for risk in energy use. I always remember seeing a statistic years ago about the number of deaths in British pits from 1800 to the present day. Someone had taken a flyer and estimated 50,000 fatalities down the pit. It’s a believable figure. This doesn’t take account of accidents, collateral damage to families or the effects of air pollution. I don’t doubt that similar figures exist for oil. Add the same statistics world-wide to the total and you have an enormous number that I suspect would be impossible to calculate. The only sources that would emerge relatively unscathed would be gas, hydro-electric and wind power.
My point is that I can’t see anyone advancing the argument that modern nuclear power plants couldn’t possibly carry such a vast human cost. I know there are problems with waste but nobody ever mentions the terrible cost that can be associated with waste from conventional power sources. We now know that we can add global warming to this and unless we do something quickly the death toll from that will dwarf anything the world has ever seen. There is another fact that doesn’t get enough air time. Over at CERN the scientists have cracked Nuclear Fusion. They need another thirty years to get it on line on an industrial scale. There are no known waste products from this technology. I believe that in order to be ready for this vast leap forward we need to be involved in Nuclear technology now and build up the knowledge and skills base that will be needed in thirty years time.
We need to educate the public and convince them that of the few options remaining to us, modern nuclear power is the safest, most effective and reliable answer. We are not talking about creaking technology like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. It will not lead to a death toll on the scale of the Black Death or Spanish flu or possibly even a 9/11. Balance against this the fact that global warming and pollution will eclipse everything we have seen so far. Some observers believe that we are looking at the extinction of life on earth.
Get real, do some objective risk assessment, the only certainties we possess at the moment are that our present course is the most dangerous, there is no absolute certainty of personal safety anywhere in life, accept a small element of risk and the certainty of survival of the majority.
SCG/26 April 2006