Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima … what do they have in common?
All three were nuclear accidents? True enough. Not what I’m looking for though. The Japanese government report on the Fukushima nuclear accident was released a few days ago. It clearly laid out the cause of the still smouldering Fukushima nuclear disaster: Human error. This is what I was looking for, in both prior nuclear accidents, human error was a huge part of the problem. This isn’t terribly surprising, in numerous industrial accidents human error was a major contributor. The Texas City Disaster. The Piper Alpha Fire. The Exxon Valdez spill. Bhopal. I could go on but I think I made my point, human error is often a major contributory factor in industrial accidents. And that’s being generous I am sure, I’ve yet to find a major industrial accident that didn’t have some component of human error. It’s not surprising. There are so any things that can go wrong with any complex system, some of them unforeseeable, that sooner or later someone is going to make a mistake or mistakes that lead to catastrophe.
I don’t think this is really debatable. Even airliners, where we have spent enormous (and largely successful) efforts to make safe, still sometimes crash. It’s just now been determined that the Air France jet that flew into the Atlantic a few years ago could have recovered had the crew acted correctly. People sometimes make bad calls in a crisis, that’s not ever going to change. The point here is that no matter how well designed something is; no matter how many safeguards, alarms, and back-ups it has; sooner or later someone or someones are going to bypass them all and cause a problem. And this of course applies to nuclear power plants, which are certainly as complicated as airliners. And we now have three “crashed” nuclear power plants, and it is 100% certain it will happen again. No matter how much they learn from Fukushima, it will happen again.
This is a problem. A big problem. A problem the nuclear industry and most of the world’s governments don’t want anyone to know about. It’s a problem because when an airliner crashes, a factory blows up, a ship sinks, etc., the damages are generally local and containable. Chernobyl badly contaminated 1,000 square miles, seriously contaminated thousands more, caused problems thousands of miles away, eventually spreading fallout all over the Northern Hemisphere. There’s every reason to believe that the damage from Fukushima will be at least that extensive. This is serious damage on a global scale from a single industrial accident. When a plane crashes or a factory blows up a few hundred people are killed, but ultimately the damages are limited in geography and over time. The worst fallout (Cesium 137, Strontium 90) from a nuclear accident has a half life of 30 years, which means it might be decades or centuries before the worst contaminated areas are safe again.
Which leads into the second major problem with nuclear accidents. We don’t really know how much damage they cause. Some people say Chernobyl only killed 28 people, most experts put the total at around 10,000. Some experts peg it at over 100,000. And in both of the last estimates, non-fatal cancers are estimated at about ten times the number of fatal cases. Basically one can find “expert opinion” for pretty much any level of death and cancer one wants. How do us worms know? Well, the cigarette industry had no trouble finding “expert opinion” saying cigarettes were more or less harmless for decades after the issue was settled as far as scientists were concerned. The nuclear industry is just as well funded as the cigarette industry, it’s far more difficult to do research on the topic, and it’s very easy to manipulate the data to get any result one wants. And unlike the cigarette industry, the nuclear industry has friends in big government and big military everywhere. In other words, when some government or industry spokesman claims that nuclear energy is “safe,” it should be taken with a large dose of salt.
My only real point here is that the safety of the nuclear industry has been wildly exaggerated, usually by comparing apples to oranges. There isn’t any really comparable industry. What other kind of industrial installation in the worst case scenario can render everything within 15-20 miles uninhabitable for decades, and cause thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) of cases of cancer over an entire continent, if not an entire hemisphere? And how close is the gentle reader to the nearest nuclear power plant anyhow?
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. I’m not sure who to credit it too, but got it from this fine site. It’s an image from the abandoned town of Prypiat near Chernobyl. I chose it because it is a beautiful and haunting image.)