Anxiety about a big accident at a nuclear power plant is surely one of the great fears of our age. The world had its first big scare in 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in the USA, when a cooling system malfunction caused part of the core of Unit 2 to melt, destroying the reactor. No one was harmed, but the concerns the incident raised and the worldwide publicity it received led to record box office takings for The China Syndrome, a film about a nuclear reactor meltdown starring Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda, which happened to be showing at the time of the accident.
Seven years later, in the Soviet Union, a badly run safety test on Unit 4 of the Chernobyl power plant went wrong, leading to steam and hydrogen explosions that blew the top off the reactor and ejected a large amount of radioactive material into the air. Thirty operators and firemen died in the accident itself and in the three months that followed. In two separate evacuations, about a third of a million people living in the surrounding areas were moved out, never to return.
More recently, in Japan in 2011, a fifteen-metre-high tsunami disabled the power supplies and cooling systems of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing all three cores to melt. There were no deaths linked to radiation in the immediate aftermath of the event, but 111,000 people were told to evacuate the area, and 49,000 more joined them of their own accord. Fewer than half the total number had returned to their homes four years later, and 37,000 were still listed as refugees a decade after the accident.
In his new book, Serhii Plokhy draws on the testimonies given by witnesses at the inquiries into these and other nuclear accidents to provide dramatised, fly-on-the-wall accounts of what happened. Some intriguing and gossipy details emerge, particularly in Plokhy’s pen portraits of the major figures involved. We learn that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev bawled out and threatened to dismiss the minister in charge of the country’s nuclear programme, Yefim Slavsky, when a chemical explosion occurred at a nuclear materials processing site. The tongue-lashing cascaded down the management chain until the final scapegoat was found in the form of the shift foreman, who, realising that the blame game was integral to Soviet culture, knew better than to protest and so kept his job. Naoto Kan, Japanese prime minister at the time of the Fukushima accident, comes across as a short-tempered micro-manager. Kan thought, as many people still do, that evacuating tens of thousands of people living near the plant and keeping them away for a long time should be the default option in the case of a big accident at a nuclear reactor.
This was the starting position for the researchers on the multi-university team that I led when, a year after the Fukushima meltdown, we began to ponder how best to respond to a really bad reactor accident. But as we examined more and more data from the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, we started to realise things were not so clear cut. We were amazed to find that there is almost never a case for permanently moving people out of the contaminated area after a big nuclear accident. The new judgement-value method, which seeks to find a balance between the money needed to pay for a safety measure and the gain in life expectancy it confers, was used to examine the policy options after the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. It found that far too many people were evacuated after the Chernobyl meltdown and that it was difficult to justify moving anyone away after the Fukushima accident, much less over a hundred thousand people, with all the accompanying disruption to their lives. The overall message should instead be, more or less, ‘keep calm and carry on’. This finding was confirmed by two other teams using independent methods.
While those who remain in situ may lose a few months of life expectancy and face a slightly greater risk of cancer than those who leave, the overall effects of staying behind on health are no greater than those that come from choosing to live in a big and polluted city such as London. Of the 220,000 people relocated in the second Chernobyl evacuation, the worst-affected nine hundred would have lost only three months’ life expectancy by staying put. By way of comparison, Londoners are currently giving up four and a half months of their lives to air pollution.
Plokhy believes that no more nuclear power plants should be built. Three other accidents from the early days of the nuclear age are added to the three involving commercial nuclear power stations to bolster his case: the USA’s 1954 Castle Bravo test of a thermonuclear device on Bikini Atoll, where damaging fallout dropped on inhabited as well as uninhabited islands; a 1957 chemical explosion in a radioactive waste tank at the Maiak military nuclear materials complex in the USSR, which added to the already enormous radioactive pollution of the Kyshtym area; and the 1957 fire in Britain’s first plutonium production reactor at Windscale, which led to the release of sizeable amounts of radioactive iodine into the atmosphere, resulting in a ban on local milk sales for several weeks.
Plokhy contends that nuclear energy and nuclear weapons are two parts of a unified nuclear industry, with the commercial nuclear industry existing merely as the ‘“atoms for peace” sector of the nuclear industry’. I can only say that this runs counter to my own experience of working in the UK’s civil nuclear industry for sixteen years, which included a period in charge of decommissioning the Windscale AGR power station depicted on the dust jacket of the book. In all this time, I had no contact at all with anyone involved in the making of nuclear weapons. Incidentally, Plokhy suggests that ‘nobody ever fully decommissioned (as opposed to shutting down) a nuclear power station’. In fact, the decommissioning of the Windscale AGR power station was completed over ten years ago and the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has an ongoing programme to decommission all the country’s nuclear power stations after they stop generating electricity.
Seeing nuclear energy through the lens of nuclear weaponry, Plokhy believes that ‘nuclear energy today serves as a foreign-policy tool in the hands of competing or even hostile governments’, but although he refers to the current war in Ukraine in the context of the Chernobyl disaster, he omits to mention Russia’s use of non-nuclear energy sources, in this case oil and gas, as bargaining chips in its attempts to reduce European support for Ukraine.
Nor does Plokhy see merit in nuclear energy as a means of countering climate change, because he thinks the examples discussed in his book have proved it to be accident-prone (safety experts in the nuclear energy industry would disagree) and ‘inherently unsafe’. But if the harm to local people after even a massive nuclear reactor accident is no worse than that caused by the industrial pollution many of us face daily, as our 2017 study showed, should we not be changing the way we think about nuclear energy?