Chernobyl’s Tragedy-Induced Lessons
April 26 is the 26th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. Given recent government approval of new nuclear power plant construction in Georgia and South Carolina, it’s edifying to review Mikhail Gorbachev’s seasoned reflections on nuclear power.
In 2011, Gorbachev published Chernobyl 25 Years Later: Many Lessons Learned. In his retrospective, he cited three foremost lessons: needed public oversight of the secretive and deceptive nuclear industry; the new threat of terrorism to nuclear plants; and the urgency of building a secure energy future, from solar, wind and water. His statement could be construed as an apologia for his role in the Soviet Union’s secrecy and slow response to the world’s worst industrial accident prior to Fukushima. It was Sweden who alerted the world, not the Soviet Union; and Gorbachev endangered residents by delaying evacuation.
Seventy tons of combusted nuclear fuel and 700 tons of radioactive graphite blanketed the disaster site. Belarus, western Russia, and rich farmland of the Ukraine were severely contaminated. Fearful of acute food shortages, Soviet authorities relaxed permissible levels of radioactivity in agricultural land. Winds carried 50 tons of fine particles to many parts of Europe and throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Hunting, fishing and foraging remain restricted in many contaminated regions of mainland Europe and the British Isles.
The cost of Chernobyl, in death and illness and in social cynicism and anomie, is incalculable. Distrust of Soviet authorities grew so rapidly following the accident that many people refused to take protective potassium iodide pills belatedly distributed by the government. In 2006, the Ukrainian Health Minister reported that more than 2.4 million Ukrainians suffered health effects from the Chernobyl catastrophe. The highest estimate of overall mortality from the Chernobyl explosion and fire from April, 1986 to the end of 2004 is 985,000 people. Some analysts attribute the collapse of the Soviet Union beginning in 1989 to the “psychic blow” of Chernobyl. (See Stephanie Cooke, In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age.)
Gorbachev calls Chernobyl a “tragedy…beyond comprehension” and “a shocking reminder of the reality of the nuclear threat.” He now works to implement his tragedy-induced lessons. As founding president of Green Cross International, with branches in 31 countries, he heads the international Climate Change Task Force to help ensure a sustainable and secure future. Like Gorbachev, the ex-Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, who resigned in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear emergency, has become a critic of nuclear power and an apostle of renewable technologies. Government and industry secrecy about the extremity of the Fukushima crisis, crisis mismanagement and chaos, and false pride in its technological prowess that perpetuated a myth of nuclear safety, all risked destroying his country, says Nan.
Chernobyl and Fukushima abound with morbid lessons about unmanageable nuclear accidents.Some countries are heeding them and abandoning nuclear power, among them Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland. Others are not: the U.S. has relicensed more than 70 aging nuclear plants and supports new plants. The industry’s grip on government persists, despite the unequivocal admission by the recently retired CEO of Exelon—a nuclear heavyweight and strong contributor to Obama—that nuclear power is not economically viable. Why not direct our vaunted technical pragmatism to aggressively building secure and affordable renewable energy systems?
How can we achieve a carbon-free, nuclear-free future? For one, the U.S. can emulate the commitment to conservation, mandatory green building design, renewable energy technologies and fuel-efficient practices in Europe, which has reduced the average carbon use per capita to one-half that of the average American. Europe has three times the wind power of the U.S., and photovoltaic capacity has grown by 70 percent annually in recent years. Renewables fuel 40 percent of Sweden’s energy needs and 20 percent of Germany’s electricity compared to 11 percent of U.S. electricity (most from biomass and hydropower) in 2011. Solar and wind comprise nearly half of all new electricity generation in Europe. The fuel standard for European vehicles is 50 mpg by 2012, compared to the U.S. average of 35.5 mpg by 2016. Were the United States to achieve the fuel economy standards of Europe, demand for oil would drop by an estimated 20 percent—an urgent thought given the oil pollution tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico and climate change overtaking us.
A critically acclaimed study, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, prepared by the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, lays out a carbon-free and nuclear-free roadmap for U.S. energy policy. The study analyzes more than 25 available and nearly available renewable technologies, green building design, high efficiency vehicles and fuels for readiness for large-scale use, next steps for large-scale implementation, and CO2 abatement costs. The overarching finding is that “a zero-CO2 energy economy can be achieved within the next 30 to 50 years without the use of nuclear power.” Further, the study found that eliminating CO2 emissions can be achieved with “available or foreseeable technologies,” at affordable cost, without buying carbon credits from other countries, and with phasing out oil imports within 25 years.
Likewise, researchers Jacobson and Delucchi at Stanford and the University of California, Davis have laid out a roadmap for energy policy in the next two to four decades, using a mix of energy efficiency, wind, water and solar technologies. The barriers to achieving a renewable national and global energy system, according to the authors, are fundamentally political and social, not technological or economic.
In our corner of the world—the evacuation zone of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant—we are locked in a democracy-driven power struggle, namely the people and the state of Vermont vs. Entergy, to shut down Vermont Yankee. From an energy standpoint, we are perilously near two tipping points. One is climate change largely from fossil fuels: some experts estimate we have no more than 10 years before irreversible effects ensue. The other is nuclear power: a Fukushima-like accident in the U.S. is only a matter of time, according to nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen. Precious little time remains. Vermont Yankee must be shut down and needed bylaws and siting guidelines set so that wind and solar farms can be built.
Pat Hynes, Chair, Board of Directors
Traprock Center for Peace and Justice
In Defense of Quabbin Logging
In the last two issues of the Advocate there appeared letters from activists critical of forestry and logging on the Quabbin Reservoir watershed. The ominous “timber industry” they refer to consists mostly of local foresters and family logging companies from the watershed towns: folks like the Conkeys from Belchertown, descendants of Shutesbury’s original settlers, not exactly Weyerhauser.
Surely the “ravaging” of the land must pollute Quabbin’s waters, yet long-term water quality testing by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) shows no degradation; in fact the reservoir remains so clean DCR isn’t required to filter its drinking water. Nor is there any evidence of harmful effects on wildlife, from mice to moose. Many wildlife biologists agree that a forestry program such as Quabbin’s diversifies the forest tree composition and creates openings and edges suitable for a greater variety of species.
The writers make a case that the forestry program doesn’t fully pay for itself. I dare say most state programs generate no revenue, but are nonetheless cost-effective because they provide benefits to the Commonwealth. In this case benefits include management for long-term forest health, high drinking water quality without costly filtration, access for public safety and policing, and a contribution to the local economy. Before the current recession, approximately $550,000 in receipts from Quabbin forestry was returned to the Commonwealth annually. That’s more than can be said of most state programs.
What, then, is the crux of their objection? It must be the appearance. Timber harvesting can appear messy right after a cut, but in a few years ground covers, shrubs, and saplings take hold and the forest begins to regenerate itself while providing a succession of niches for wildlife. This truly is the story of the Quabbin Reservoir, a watershed begun mostly as cleared farmland and shaped by an active water-quality-oriented forestry program for 50 years. The familiar, much-loved Quabbin landscape is the result of that history.
I work at the Quabbin Reservoir for the DCR, although not in forestry. My program is in environmental regulation and local land use planning on private lands in the watershed towns. This is where the real estate developers are busy at work and where the focus should be for environmentalists.