Not Another Chernobyl

By March 22, 2011

The still-developing situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant after last week’s devastating earthquake is not, I repeat, is not another Chernobyl, despite what headline writers and news anchors would like to claim. I assert that, while this crisis hasn’t killed as many people, or leaked as much radiation or fissile material as the 1986 disaster, the events of the past week place nuclear power at the center of public attention like no other time since the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island, thirty-one years ago. It calls into question the safety of nuclear energy, and, when the dust settles, will greatly influence future policy debate over cleaner alternatives to fossil-fuelled energy production.

My argument, that Fukushima is more significant, policy-wise, than Chernobyl, rests on three arguments. Japan is a geographically small, economically powerful ally of the United States; natural disasters, for which Japan is extremely well-prepared, take away the element of human culpability. Finally, despite Japan’s place at the head of the technological pack for the past twenty years at least, the burden of cleaning up this disaster rests on the shoulders of men and women; which, aside from the mixed-gender situation, sounds very much like the Chernobyl situation. Except now we have CNN to make a human drama out of it.

First, Japan is a small country, friendly with the United States, and has a history of being the tragic case in point against nuclear energy (explosive or otherwise). Japan is a pretty small country. or at least relative to the USSR it is. The explosion at Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in history, resulted in dispersal of radioactive material over hundreds of miles. Around the plant, the nearby city of Pripyat was evacuated, displacing its 50,000 residents. A thirty kilometer Zone Of Alienation was placed around the plant. Today, fewer than a thousand people live in the city, the majority of them either elderly or vagabonds.

After March 13, when fears over core meltdown at Fukushima 1 were legitimated by several hydrogen explosions, the exclusion zone around the reactor was extended to twenty kilometers. The International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA) says that between 170,000 and 200,000 people are under evacuation orders. Japan’s close relationship with the United States since the end of World War II, both economically, culturally, and militarily, render what transpires there more relevant to American audiences. Recall that in 1986, the US and the Soviet Union were not, to put it lightly, the best of friends. The USSR didn’t initially release information about the explosion; Western news media were notified by employees at a Swedish nuclear facility that something, radioactive ash, was blowing over from Ukraine. Because the US and Japan have a significantly more amicable relationship than the US had with the USSR, the US and Japan engage in cultural exchange, and because of the transparency provided by modern news media, the nuclear crisis in Japan will have a greater effect on the US energy debate than Chernobyl did.

Second, the disaster was in no way the result of human error; natural disasters, by dint of their uncontrollable, unpredictable nature, provide a sobering reminder that we, alas, are only human. Unlike the Chernobyl disaster, where some combination of operating error and/or structural deficiencies were to blame, the fact that the current crisis at Fukushima was caused wholly by some combination of nature and bad luck is, on balance, worse for nuclear energy’s public image than a human-caused disaster. Again, this disaster emphasizes the impermanence and fallibility of human design, which leads very nicely into my final point.

Third, Japan has long been lauded as a paragon of high technology; one would figure that if any country could do a bang-up job of maintaining, operating, and securing their nuclear facilities, or cleaning up from nuclear mishaps, it would be Japan. Japan, more than any country in the world, is the one most prepared for natural disasters; buildings and infrastructure are built to the strictest building code on earth. As I see it, despite their best efforts, Japan is using technology used during vastly less technical crises. It doesn’t seem as though there will be robots taking up the helm any time soon; from here in it’s just filthy, harrowing grunt work done by, you guessed it, human beings.

A larger question looms: what will be the long term effects the disaster at Fukushima? Given that the disaster has been broadcast nearly 24 hours a day around the world, it is unlikely that the enormity of the incident hasn’t hit home with a significant portion of American, European, and Asian audiences. From an American perspective, if something like this could happen to a country as prepared as Japan, whose technology is usually superior to ours, I would be skeptical of any new development of nuclear power plants. In the coming months, keep watch for this debate; how it plays out is unclear. However, if you want to know where I’m putting my money, literally and figuratively, it’s in solar and natural gas.