[ RadSafe ] Nature Editoral: Learning from Chernobyl

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Fri Apr 21 15:51:34 CDT 2006

I thought this was a good editorial as it presented
all of the issues.  The editorial is at 

The article, "Special Report: Counting the dead" is at

The article, "Chernobyl and the future: Too soon for a
final diagnosis" is at

The article, "Energy:  Nuclear power's new dawn" is at

The article, "Nuclear power: Chernobyl and the future:
when the price is right" from 2004 is at

The article, "Nuclear waste: Chernobyl and the future:
Forward planning" is at

Nature 440, 969-970 (20 April 2006)

Learning from Chernobyl
Abstract: As the accident that blackened the name of
nuclear power fades from memory, openings present
themselves for the technology to edge its way back
into public favour.

The image is a resonant one and rests indelibly in the
mind. The plant sits, fuming restlessly, while all
around an inept Soviet bureaucracy crumbles into the
ensuing chaos. No one knows how many will have died as
a result of the radioactive cloud expelled by
Chernobyl's number 4 reactor on 26 April 1986; the
fact that people are still debating it (see pages 982
and 993) says enough.

Skip forward 20 years, and nuclear power is edging
back into vogue. It wasn't just Chernobyl that drove
it out of favour, of course: the Three Mile Island
incident in Pennsylvania in 1979, a catalogue of
economic and technical setbacks in several nations,
and the surprising resilience of fossil fuels as a
cheap and available source of energy had already seen
to that.

As memories of these mishaps recede, other factors
have arisen to bring nuclear power back into play.
Energy prices are high again, and governments are
seeking to tackle climate change by limiting
fossil-fuel emissions. Economists from California to
Calcutta are looking at pie-charts of their future
energy supply and saying that nuclear power needs to
play a role. Will it?

The answer is a qualified yes — provided that
governments absorb the true lesson of Chernobyl. This
is not that nuclear power is unsafe, but that it is
unsafe in the hands of a corrupt, unaccountable,
irresponsible political system that fails to take
reasonable measures to protect its citizens. The
future of nuclear energy does not hinge primarily on
the development of a safer reactor or a more
geologically reliable waste repository, but on the
ability of states to build public trust in their
ability to safely implement and manage the technology.

Building trust
This trust can be achieved in different ways. In
France, where the public appreciates the centralized
technocracy that brought it high-speed trains,
Concorde and an independent nuclear deterrent, nuclear
power is ubiquitous and widely accepted. Scandinavian
nations have a different political tradition, in which
inclusive decision-making may soon open the way for
the world's first permanent nuclear-waste
repositories. Elsewhere, however, the future of
nuclear energy is uncertain. The mechanisms that will
assure its acceptance are not yet in place.

The key elements of this equation are the same the
world over: nuclear power's real and perceived links
with nuclear weapons; the available technology for
power generation; its safety and economics; and
options for clean-up and waste disposal.

Recent events in Iran serve as a painful reminder of
the interaction between nuclear power and nuclear
weapons. From the days of the 'Atoms for Peace'
movement in the 1950s, advocates of the former have
sought to separate the two, but they are inextricably
linked. Public acceptance of nuclear power in Europe,
Japan and the United States would benefit from a
credible strategy to contain the proliferation of
nuclear weapons. Expansion of nuclear power elsewhere,
on the back of further proliferation of nuclear
weapons, could have disastrous consequences.

The technology of nuclear power plants continues to
improve (see Nature 429, 238–240; 2004). Chernobyl was
a vastly archaic reactor whose safety systems,
regulation and management were not close to acceptable
standards. Modern working reactors are not susceptible
to Chernobyl-style accidents, and some designs now
under consideration could be safer still.

But safe reactor design, unfortunately, provides
little protection against current fears — floated
again this week in a sceptical report from a committee
of British members of parliament — that nuclear plants
may be vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Counting the cost
The economics of such plants are subject to fierce
debate (see page 984). The deregulated
power-generation markets that have taken shape over
the past two decades have little appetite for nuclear
power's combination of high build costs, low running
costs and uncertain future liabilities. Old debates
about how many cents it costs to produce electricity
have been superseded by a more subjective discussion
about what goes in the bucket labelled 'costs'.
Restoring sites to a pristine state may be
prohibitively expensive, as may the permanent disposal
of waste and spent fuel. The construction of new
plants will require either financial guarantees from
the state (in Britain or the United States) or direct
government involvement (in India or China).

Restoring sites to a pristine state may be
prohibitively expensive, as may the permanent disposal
of waste and spent fuel.
Finally, nuclear-waste disposal remains the industry's
Achilles' heel. For governments that advocate nuclear
power to offer no solution — and leave spent fuel and
other waste on the surface for future generations to
deal with — is an abdication of responsibility. The
threat of terrorist attack on nuclear power stations,
as well as the risk that their spent fuel could be
stolen and used for such an attack, renders the notion
of long-term, localized waste storage at multiple
sites even less tenable than it was before.

Different approaches are being taken to the management
of waste disposal. Yucca Mountain in Nevada is in
grave danger of becoming an expensive monument to
failure (see page 987). The site was selected by
default when Nevada was too weak to remove itself from
the process — a hopeless, unscientific approach that
may now reap what it sowed. Scandinavian states are
doing a little better; Finland is winning support for
a repository on the basis of a continuing nuclear
energy programme, and Sweden is doing so on a promise
to wrap the whole thing up. France has made some
headway in site selection and can be relied on to
address the issue with its customary determination.
Britain has to start again from scratch, and is using
its Committee on Radioactive Waste Management as an
interesting, if not entirely convincing, experiment in
public consultation.

So far, India and China, the biggest likely builders
of nuclear power stations in the next 20 years, don't
have much to say about waste disposal. Time will tell
if either of them can handle the issue in an
environmentally responsible way. However, if national
pride in nuclear technology is a significant factor,
the French example suggests that nuclear power has a
solid future in Asia, with or without a waste

In the West, however, the future options for nuclear
power are far narrower than the heat of the current
debate would suggest. Abandonment, as embraced
fleetingly by the previous German government, isn't
going to happen. The kind of major build-up envisaged
before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl (see Nature
244, 392; 1973 and Nature 257, 346; 1975) isn't coming

Instead, nations are likely to tread a path somewhere
between replacing some existing nuclear power capacity
and its mild augmentation. Given global warming, high
energy costs and doubts about the reliability of the
oil supply, the latter approach has much to commend
it, although it should not be pursued at the expense
of renewable energy.

Nuclear energy's technical elegance has always
appealed to the hearts and minds of scientists and
engineers, who have been unusually prominent among its
public advocates for half a century. Throughout, these
advocates have promised to present to the public a
clean and complete nuclear fuel cycle. Now it is time
to stand and deliver.

"A scientist's aim in a discussion with his colleagues is not to persuade, but to clarify." 
Leo Szilard
-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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