Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chernobyl - 25th Anniversary.

Just to note that 25 years ago today, the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded. I wrote about the incident on its 20th anniversary (http://ergobalance.blogspot.com/2006/04/chernobyl-26th-april-2006-20-years-on.html). I was working in Russia around this time, and that is maybe why the memory of it is quite acute for me, as it is undoubtedly for many others.

Such a reminder of Chernobyl is all the more poignant in view of the troubles at the Fukushima power station in Japan, triggered by the recent earthquake and tsunami there. It is thought it will be 3 months before all leaks of radioactive material are stopped from the plant and 9 months before the whole is securely buried in concrete. When such catastrophes occur, nuclear power becomes a demon in the public gaze, while mostly it is regarded with a quiet respect such as for a sleeping rottweiler.

I commented about Chernobyl that it is not simply a matter of accounting the magnitude of the disaster in terms of the immediate death count, but that the toll placed upon a regional and national psychology and the effect of despair and powerlessness imposed upon the human spirit constitute a broader and more lingering legacy. http://ergobalance.blogspot.com/2006/05/chernobyl-how-many-really-will-die.html

For the Japanese people, as for the Russian people after Chernobyl, there is undoubtedly a profound sense of uncertainty and of dented national pride. But amid such catastrophes always emerges a deeply rooted courage and resilience and an ability to transcend adversity that defines us as members of the human family, whatever our nation, race or creed.


Professor Chris Rhodes said...

The following arrived in my mailbox but not automatically on here, so I am posting it now. Chris....

I have found that it pays to pay attention to first reports of possibly major news items, since as sure as apples is apples, very quickly the news (the “story” in msm jargon). Note that a story is an invented thing, it can be manipulated in almost any way to suit the author or sponsor, and so it became with Chernobyl) can be “mutated” to suit vested interests.
I was interested as an engineer since the first report I became aware of was that the engineers of the plant wanted to carry out a, or some, or a series of, emergency shutdown situations. So they disconnected the emergency trips and shut downs, all of them. Then they simulated, or so they thought, a shut-down situation, and found much to their surprise (a rum lot, Russian engineers!) that the thing wouldn’t be, couldn’t be stopped, not anyway, not anyhow. So an engineering f*ck*p of the first magnitude evolved into “Chernobyl, the World’s Worst Nuclear Disaster!”.
And as such, it is routinely trotted out as an “argument” against nuclear power.
And of course if those loony engineers had been locked up beforehand, the disaster would never have happened, and the plant would still be contentedly operating.
And now, surprise, surprise, Fukushima has very quickly become an “argument” against nuclear power.
And yet, as we all know, Fukushima is an old design, at least 4 designs away from 21st century practice. The reactor didn’t fail, the auxiliaries failed. Again, it was the engineers what done it. Now, no one would dream of offering up a Fukushima design for serious consideration.
And of course the real culprits are those who authorised the building of a series of nuclear reactors more-or-less directly on a major earthquake fault line. It would make sense to hunt those down, especially the leader, and lock them all up forever in a specially built prison for the criminally insane, along with their spiritual brothers those Chernobyl engineers. The prison should preferable be lightly built directly on the worst fault line.
I doubt if anyone can be held responsible for the Tsunami which resulted from the earthquake. Pity, that.
En passant, as it were, I lived in France at the time, in those days, in which, you will recall, there was no satellite tv, no internet, just national broadcasting services, and faible short-wave BBC. I remember very clearly a French government person standing in front of a huge wall map of Europe, upon which had been drawn a series of wind lines, demonstrating very clearly and logically (in the Gallic sense) that the radioactive wind was by-passing France to the North and South, but not going anywhere near to us. And sure enough that naughty wind could be seen approaching from the East, and then because of the Alps, splitting over Italy, up North and South, and the Northern bit curling along the French border, across the Netherlands, the North Sea, England, and even North Wales (and we eventually read about radioactive Welsh sheep). The Southern bit of the wind flowed over Spain and Portugal of course.
A good place to be, France.
Anyway, and to come to the point of this otherwise useless note, having spent about a year in Japan, working, of course, I very much doubt that the:-

”...toll placed upon a regional and national psychology and the effect of despair and powerlessness imposed upon the human spirit constitute a broader and more lingering legacy.....” etc,

Will really happen in Japan.
They are bigger than that.

Best regards
Peter Melia

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Dear Peter,

I somehow expected a response from you and you have not disappointed me. As so often, I agree with you.

Both the Chernobyl and Fukushima calamities are being used predictably as an emphasis against nuclear power. For all the reasons you mention, and which I wrote about in the earlier postings that I cite, the one was down to a very unfortunate engineering experiment, and the other to an "act of Nature/God".

I am not personally anti-nuclear, but like my "rottweiler" it guards us against electricity shortages by providing around 13% (I believe) of world electricity - and closer to 80% of French electricity - but it can bite when things go badly wrong.

My stance is we need nuclear power - I didn't think so 5 or 6 years ago when I began thinking about such things, but I do now. I remember Chernobyl and the difficulty of finding out what was happening during that Soviet era of secrecy (not that the Japanese were overly flamboyant with information either), and we got our information from colleagues in Scandinavia via the old JANET network. I was in Leningrad at the time.

Many of those who were killed "immediately" by the radioactive outflow from Chernobyl heroically risked their lives in the service of a greater good - namely preventing thousands more from receiving high doses of radiation.
A team of scientists remained there as "night watchmen", some of whom have died as a consequence of their radiation exposure.

Such unexpected catastrophes do impact on the human soul, but please read my final statement again, about how the human spirit is indeed greater than this, and it is at such times we see incredible acts of bravery and an abiding spirit of fortitude.



Russ said...

Found your blog via Greenedia, and like your general prescription of "relocalizing civilization." This should be done gradually of course, but steps in that direction need to be taken very soon, if not now. In this context, if nuclear power is to be a part of the energy mix at all, I believe it's place should be at the heart of the larger metropolitan areas - if the citizenry is in sufficient need of electricity beyond their rooftop PVs, and are sufficiently convinced of its safety, to vote for it. In other words, rewards and risks should be together.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Russ,

yes, you have it in a nutshell, that relocalising society is the only way to mitigate the impending oil-supply problem.Liquid fuels of all energy sources are the most vulnerable.

Keeping the cities running, however, until some modification of how we live becomes possible (and time is of the essence) is the only way to avoid a social meltdown since this is where the majority of the developed (northern) world population lives.

I agree that nuclear power is going to be an essential factor in this.



Mark said...


Glad to see you are taking a break from Royal Wedding Fever to make posts on your blog.

Though we both agree that nuclear energy is a necessity to help meet future energy needs I do not see a rush to build new reactors in the near future. Besides the great expense involved there will be too much opposition for new nuclear construction, at least in democratic countries. The events in Japan sealed the fate of new reactors for at least the next five to ten years. Japan is a nation full of top notch scientific and technological talent and if some like Fukushima Daiichi can happen there it can happen anywhere.

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Mark,

while I hope everyone had a good day, the Royal Wedding isn't top of my agenda! :-)

I do wonder. Chernobyl seemed to sound the death knell for nuclear in the mid-80s but the energy supply problems are far more acute now, and I think this might outweigh a total ban on nuclear even in the light of the Japanese situation.

Peter Melia has made some comments on the age and quality of the Fukushima reactor and of course its location and the earthquake/tsunami pushed the whole thing over.

So, I expect that necessity will still encourage nuclear but I do wonder if on grounds of cost and safety the thorium molten salt (liquid fluoride) reactor technology might come to the fore in our nuclear programme?