Twenty years ago, early on the morning of 26 April 1986, just over a mile from what was then a city of half a million people, the number four nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine exploded. Lack of equipment and safety apparatus meant that the on-site staff underestimated the dangers.
Many would die from radiation poisoning within weeks as a result of their efforts to contain the blaze.
Firefighters arriving at the site were not told of the dangers from the radioactive smoke. It took the authorities 24 hours to acknowledge the threat to the local population and evacuate nearby towns.
Over 200 people were hospitalised immediately and 31 died. A recent report highlighted by the Guardian in late March argued that subsequent casualty figures have been hugely underestimated by those responsible for overseeing atomic power around the world.
The United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organisation have said that only 50 deaths can be directly linked to the explosion, and that at most only 4,000 people will die.
The new report suggests something different. Researchers, taking into account 50 published scientific studies, suggest that at least 500,000 of the two million people classed as victims of the Chernobyl accident have already died.
They also suggest that over 34,000 people who took part in the clean-up operation have died since the accident. Their death rate due to cancer is three times that for the rest of the population.
These figures contradict those of the IAEA. The IAEA is the agency responsible for promoting nuclear power, so its desire to downplay the effects of the world’s worst nuclear accident is perhaps not too surprising.
Some facts about Chernobyl are indisputable though. Throughout Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, five million people were exposed to radiation from the plant and hundreds of thousands were forcibly evacuated.
Millions still live in contaminated areas. The explosion released 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the US nuclear bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. This had horrific results.
Radiation damages the cells of living things. These tiny changes can be responsible for all sorts of cancers and diseases.
Thyroid cancer normally only affects one in a million people. However, a third of those under four years of age exposed to fallout from Chernobyl get the disease.
Millions of people living downwind of Chernobyl face health risks – 7 percent of the 3.3 million people in Ukraine have already suffered related illnesses.
Belarus received almost all of the radiation emitted from Chernobyl. Only 1 percent of its land is free from contamination.
Almost a quarter of Belarus’s farmland has been rendered permanently unusable. It’s no surprise that 1,000 children die there every year from thyroid cancer. A quarter of the country’s budget is spent on alleviating the effects of the accident.
Chernobyl is rightly remembered as the world’s worst nuclear accident. As its 20th anniversary approaches we are seeing something very worrying.
For millions of people around the globe the accident at Chernobyl, coming less than a decade after the partial meltdown of a US reactor at Three Mile Island, marked the end of nuclear power as a sensible energy option.
Yet today governments are once again looking towards nuclear power. Tony Blair has made his commitment to nuclear energy clear. Later this year his government may begin the process of building up to 14 new reactors.
The picture is far worse around the world. India has eight reactors under construction. China plans to commission two new nuclear plants every year for the next two decades.
Those pushing nuclear power as an option for Britain’s energy needs do not dwell on the terrible safety record of the industry.
Instead they tell us that nuclear power is a clean, cheap source of electricity that is the only solution to the environmental problems we face.
In particular, we are told that without more nuclear energy we have little hope of reducing carbon dioxide emissions and halting climate change.
Those who are serious about fighting climate change must mark the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster by showing why nuclear power is an unacceptably dangerous form of energy generation, and why it is no solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The effects of climate change can already be seen in the ecosystems of the planet. The longer term consequences are deeply frightening for the world’s people and environment.
In his new book, The Weather Makers, scientist Tim Flannery argues that we need to cut emissions of the most important greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, by 70 percent before 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace agree with this figure, as do many other climate change scientists, writers and commentators.
The biggest source of carbon dioxide is energy production from coal, gas and oil burning power stations. It’s this that must be dramatically reduced.
The nuclear industry has tried to claim green credentials because it says that electricity produced by nuclear power is “carbon neutral”. This means it doesn’t generate carbon dioxide.
On the surface this is correct – the nuclear reactions that take place inside a reactor do not add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
However, nuclear plants are at the heart of a complex cycle of mining, transport and waste storage that generate huge amounts of greenhouse gases.
A Friends of the Earth report in November 2004 took into account the carbon dioxide released by the building of a nuclear reactor, the mining and transport of uranium, the processing and then further transport of the nuclear fuel, followed by the long term storage of the spent radioactive waste.
It showed that nuclear power produces “about 50 percent more global warming emissions than wind power”.
Just one example can show the flaw in the industry’s argument. The world’s biggest uranium mine is in southern Australia. It’s the region’s largest producer of carbon dioxide and consumes a quarter of all electricity used in that part of the world. It also has a terrible record for destruction of the local environment and poisoning the surrounding area with radiation.
Converting the world’s energy generation from fossil fuel technology to nuclear power couldn’t happen quickly enough to produce the immediate reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that are needed. A new nuclear plant takes 15 years to build.
The environmental claims of the nuclear industry look even shallower when you consider that the nuclear industry produces huge amounts of waste. Much of this is dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.
Britain has 1.75 million cubic metres of nuclear waste. A typical reactor produces 25-30 tonnes more every year.
This waste must be isolated in places where it cannot leak radiation into the surrounding environment yet, according to Friends of the Earth, “not a single repository exists anywhere in the world for the disposal of high level waste from nuclear power”.
So much nuclear waste exists in the US that an entire mountain has been hollowed out to store the material. Existing waste would more than fill the mountain and a new alternative must be found.
There are serious doubts about our ability to store this waste safely. The British agency responsible for storage proposes burying the material up to a kilometre underground. Yet its own advisers are worried that the containers used could rust in less than 500 years.
The Observer newspaper pointed out that “almost 90 percent of Britain’s hazardous nuclear waste stockpile is so badly stored it could explode or leak with devastating results at any time”.
Because of these factors anyone concerned about the environment should realise that nuclear power is not an option.
The crucial task of reducing carbon dioxide emissions has to be achieved in other ways. There are two key ways to do this, both of which could be achieved with existing technology.
The first task is making the generation and use of electricity more efficient. Something like two thirds of all electricity generated in Britain is wasted—partly because buildings are so badly insulated, but mostly because electricity is produced so far from where it is needed. Much of this is lost during transmission to cities and towns.
Using local, more efficient plants that utilise the heat by-product of the generation of power rather than venting it into the atmosphere would go a long way to reducing energy generation and carbon dioxide emissions.
The second task is the more urgent one. This is the rapid shift away from fossil fuels as a main source of energy and towards renewable energy sources. There is a surprising amount of agreement on the possibility of doing this.
Reports from organisations as different as Greenpeace, the European Union and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution offer very similar scenarios, which conclude that increased use of wind, tidal and wave sources would easily cover Britain’s energy needs.
The block to this is not technological, it’s the lack of willpower from governments to confront the powerful corporations whose profits centre on the use of fossil fuels. Governments such as those of George Bush and Tony Blair are closely tied to the oil, coal and uranium barons.
If we are to stop climate change and avoid the environmental destruction it means we must force governments to confront those industries and their priorities.
Along the way, we must argue that nuclear power is no solution to climate change. There is a great urgency to doing this and the consequences of remaining idle could be catastrophic for the planet.
Martin Empson is a Respect candidate for Limehouse ward in Tower Hamlets, east London, at the 4 May council elections