Not Another Chernobyl

Below is an excerpt from my most recent Flyover Geeks piece. Read the whole thing here.

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.



One response to “Not Another Chernobyl”

  1. Disagree. Human error was to blame.

    The biggest error at Fukushima was in the plant design. An engineer designing something like a nuclear power plant is responsible for ensuring its security. A too-low tsunami wall and diesel generators placed in basements were failures waiting to happen. More evidence? Of the six containment vessels, only one is suspected to have been breached, and that’s after the biggest Japanese earthquake in more than a century. For backup generators – worse, the location of backup generators – to be the weak point in a nuclear power plant is totally retarded; a good chunk of the trouble could easily have been prevented by good, or at least less-bad, design.

    It’s also kind of goofy to suggest that because Japan makes televisions and camcorders, they should have elaborate emergency reactor cooling equipment. Japan is (if I may make a joke in poor taste) the epicenter of consumer technology, but it’s not exactly laser-cooked instant meals and brain-implanted cell phones yet. Even if it were the land of flying cars and robot ninjas, advancements in consumer gadget technology – small scale electronics, mass precision fabrication, etc – have little bearing on Japan’s ability to safely cool a device that’s designed to prevent interaction with the outside world. The cooling of the reactors at Fukushima needed not computers, but brute force. (Also worth noting: these reactors were set up forty-five years ago by GE, an American company.)

    All that said, this is clearly no Chernobyl. The damage has been much less severe and much better contained. You are also right that the drama has been amped up. If anything, this incident should greatly increase our confidence in the safety of nuclear power, but it will probably have the opposite effect.

Leave a Reply