There are many reasons for rejecting the nuclear option in the “low carbon economy” as thoroughly reviewed in an ISIS report, Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050. One of the biggest question marks hanging over the industry is the potential of another catastrophe on the scale of Chernobyl, or worse.
The industry and its friends insist that we have nothing to worry about; both the design and the operation of nuclear power plants are far better now than they were in 1986, and there is really no chance at all that anything like Chernobyl could happen today.
Unfortunately, the figures the industry quotes bear little relation to reality. Chernobyl did far more harm than they admit. Evidence for this has been available both in the former Soviet Union and in the West for some time. A long and detailed review has recently appeared in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, co-authored by scientists uniquely qualified to write on the issue.
How Many Deaths?
It is, of course, very difficult to estimate the number of deaths due to Chernobyl. Many of them have not happened yet, and even looking back it is generally hard to be sure that the cancer that killed a particular individual twenty or more years after the event was caused by the radiation. Instead, we have to compare the number of cancer deaths in a contaminated area with the number that we would have expected to occur had there been no contamination. The difference, the number that can be attributed to Chernobyl, can be only a rough estimate because of all the uncertainties in the calculations. What stands out, however, is that the lowest one by far, by a factor of at least two orders of magnitude, comes from an agency that was set up to promote nuclear technology.
How Many Ill?
Despite all these obstacles, many scientific papers have been published. They give a powerful and convincing picture quite different from the claims of the Chernobyl Forum.
Reading the long, detailed and carefully referenced account of the harm caused by the Chernobyl explosion is a very sobering experience. It is in stark contrast to the summary of the report of the Chernobyl Forum: “Apart from the dramatic increase in thyroid cancer among those exposed at a young age, there is no clearly demonstrated increase in the incidence of solid cancers or leukaemia due to radiation in the most affected population. There was, however, an increase in psychological problems among the affected population, compounded by insufficient communication about radiation effects and by the social disruption and economic depression that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union.”
In the USSR, dissidents were sometimes locked up in mental hospitals on the grounds that anyone who could not appreciate how wonderful the Soviet system was must be mad. With cruel irony, and in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, the Chernobyl Forum now insist that hardly anyone was affected by the Chernobyl explosion and anyone who is worried about it must have psychological problems.
Nuclear power is not cheaper than other low-carbon sources. It cannot even be justified on the grounds that we need it to ensure a sufficient supply of energy. There are already dangers from the normal operation of nuclear power plants. Were a major incident to occur – and sooner or later one is bound to – the consequences could be catastrophic. We simply cannot afford to go nuclear. – Third World Network Features
About the writer: Peter Saunders is co-founder of the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) and professor at King’s College in London, England.