“Chernobyl” – 25 years as a profitable brand

Twenty-five years ago today, the operators at unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power station violated enough procedures and by-passed enough safety systems to cause their water-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor to suffer a nuclear power excursion large enough to cause a steam explosion. The force of that steam explosion was strong enough to lift the lid of the power station and break a number of pipes. The explosion opened up the interior of the reactor core to chemical reactions, including rapid oxidation reactions, that most people describe as “fire”.

The authorities initially tried to keep the event quiet, but eventually decided to respond with great fanfare. They ordered mass evacuations, called up a large force of conscripts, and ordered first responders into high radiation areas without protection in order to extinguish the blaze.

Eventually, with the help of contributions from the international community, the power plant was stabilized and entombed. Most of the evacuations became permanent, 28 of the first responders died within months, 19 more died of causes that are not traditionally associated with radiation during the next 15 years, and about 6,000 members of the general public were treated for thyroid cancer that was possibly caused by ingesting I-131 from locally grown produce, water and milk products. (Source: UNSCEAR assessments of the Chernobyl accident.)

As a result of the massive amount of accident publicity and organized campaigns, fear of radiation and nuclear energy spread throughout the world. Dozens of nuclear power plants were eventually shut down before the end of their design life, and an uncounted number of plants were never built.

Though the victims of the Chernobyl accident have been carefully inventoried and studied, there has been less attention paid to identifying and crediting the beneficiaries. Some people in my profession will point to the organizations that have used the scare word of “Chernobyl” as a motivator for donations and media attention. Some will point to the media itself for using the word as part of stories that have attracted millions of viewers and readers.

However, those two groups are minor players compared to the people whose sales of coal, oil, natural gas, wind turbines, solar panels and improved nuclear energy systems have been increased by billions of dollars per year for 25 years – and counting.

To a pretty good first order approximation, the sales volume of electricity and space heating are not changed when the mix of sources changes. Any reduction in output at nuclear power reactors results in an increased sales volume for all other sources in the mix. Conversely, any increase in output at nuclear energy facilities results in a decrease in sales volume for all other sources. Interestingly enough, the same government that ordered the evacuations and the first responder actions that resulted in most of the casualties still makes a significant portion of its income from selling oil and natural gas.

World Nuclear Generation Million Barrels of Oil Per Day EquivalentBefore Chernobyl, sales of nuclear generated electricity had been steadily rising throughout the world as more and more nuclear energy facilities came on line. During the period from 1956-1986, enough nuclear plants were started to add the equivalent of a new Saudi Arabia plus a new Kuwait to the world’s energy supply. (According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2010, nuclear electricity world wide is equivalent to 12 million barrels of oil per day (600 million tons per year), but it has been essentially steady for the past 10-15 years.)

Unless the marketers of all of those other energy sources are unmotivated by money – a possibility with a vanishingly small probability of being true – the temptation to use Chernobyl as part of their marketing strategy would have been overpowering. It is likely that they did not resist the temptation and that they continue their negative branding activities to this day.

Even without a direct correlation between immediate sales and efforts to scare people about radiation and nuclear energy, marketers for fossil fuel and alternative energy supply systems must know that every RBMK forced to shut down, every nuclear phase out referendum, and every halted nuclear power plant project results in both increased sales volume and increased sales price due to the shift in the supply-demand curves in the energy market.

Even people normally supportive of nuclear energy have been involved in the effort. As fear of radiation halted new reactor sales, it also resulted in increased revenues from upgrades, service and higher electricity prices.

When properly understood, Chernobyl was a major industrial accident that killed several dozen unfortunate souls who were ordered into areas that were known to be very dangerous. It was not so terribly different from dozens of other similar events over the past 25-100 years. The technical lessons that can be learned are the following:

  • Do not allow poorly trained operators anywhere near the controls of a nuclear energy facility.
  • Do not override safety systems without detailed procedures and careful, well-qualified supervision.
  • Do not build reactors that can be put into a situation where actions that normally reduce power can actually result in a rapid power increase.
  • Build a sufficient defense in depth to prevent massive, rapid radioactive material releases.

The economic lessons from the 25 years since Chernobyl became a negative branding term, however, are more important. Understand that selling energy is one of the world’s largest enterprises and that it can result in an enormous concentration of wealth. Understand that the laws of supply and demand work – more supply means lower prices and less concentration of wealth. Fewer supply options means increased prices and increased sales volume for the sources that remain available.

Understand finally that many of the arguments against the use of nuclear energy can be traced to the people who benefit from the concentration of wealth that results when energy supplies are reduced by efforts to eliminate or restrict nuclear energy’s contributions to the overall mix.

Additional Reading

More Magazine April 2011 The Women of Chernobyl – What do these women know that the hundreds of thousands who followed the orders of government bureaucrats do not? They remained in the evacuation zones and appear to be living long, healthy lives.

About Rod Adams

21 Responses to ““Chernobyl” – 25 years as a profitable brand”

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  1. George Carty says:

    You labelled the y-axis of your graph “barrels of oil per day” — is it actually meant to be “millions of barrels of oil per day”?

  2. Rod Adams says:

    George – thank you for catching that error. The graph has been corrected.

  3. John Englert says:

    “Chernobyl was a major industrial accident that killed several dozen unfortunate souls who were ordered into areas that were known to be very dangerous. ”

    The sad part about this is that if these unfortunate souls had just locked the door behind them and gone home, the severity of the accident may have been less. Some of the efforts to put the fire out actually resulted in heat being retained in the core, causing the graphite to anneal releasing even more energy into the fire.

  4. msit says:

    Well, your four points of “technical lessons that can be learned” are – if thought to the final consequence – a loud call for quite strict regulation of the nuclear power industry. This is kind of surprising to me as I usually read about the opposite here.

    Also, if I look into other industries, e.g. aviation: a lot of mistakes are done of course by not to-the-standard trained people, however, it is particular striking that for some of the worst aviation disasters a key factor was the error of very senior and experienced pilots of the particular arline (see the KLM/PanAm Tenerife accident). People have bad days, unfortunately – even the well-trained. So the the first of your points is probably wishful thinking.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @msit – there already is quite strict regulation of the nuclear industry.

      The operators at Chernobyl did not make a mistake. Under the direction of a political appointee they purposely made a series of decisions that violated a number of procedures and operational principles.

      If I were a suspicious type, I would almost think that their goal was to destroy the plant in a spectacular fashion in order to enhance the wealth and power of a certain sector of the Soviet elite.

      • msit says:

        I know there is quite a strict regulation of the nuclear industry already – but here on Atomic Insight one might gain the impression it is already way too strict.

      • Rod Adams says:

        @It is not that the regulation is “strict” but that it is so bogged down that it fails to achieve one of its main goals – enabling the safe use of nuclear energy. Suppose the FAA approval process was so convoluted and expensive that the airlines were still operating DC-9s as their primary workhorse?

      • msit says:

        Mhh, I am not sure if a DC-9 would pass a FAA certification process easily nowadays – I would guess, the requirements to certify a new type today is quite a bit higher than during DC-9 times.

      • DV82XL says:

        The DC-9 was a better build aircraft than anything built today. Like the DC-3 it will be flying long after the current fleet is dust.

      • msit says:

        @DV82XL: Did I say against this? From a engineering stand point it was/is a very fine piece of work at that time (and still is). From economically stand point it is over-engineered and too heavy which makes it a gas guzzler and “CO2 bomber” compared to modern jet designs (and particular the CO2 part is something you don’t seem to like much if I read your comments here and in other places). By that and noise requirements it would be probably hard to get certified nowadays.

      • DV82XL says:

        The DC-9 fleet has been re-engined for fuel ecconomy twice, and hush-kits are also on all flying in North America. The MD-80 is a modern DC-9 in everything but name.

        I understand the point you are making, and I will drop this now, but the ‘9’ is a great bird, that I worked on for years, and I get a bit defencive when people bad-mouth it.

      • Jason Kobos says:


        The DC-9 analogy flew right over your head. The point was that DC-9 wouldn’t meet new regulations. Even though it would still be the only plane used because all the designs that can meet new regulations are sitting on the desk at the regulatory body.

        The point is that without a steady stream of new planes(each an improvement over the last) to replace the DC-9 we would be forced to keep using the old tech and extending licenses because we can’t afford to have no planes flying.

      • msit says:

        @Jason: … which is exactly not the case, i.e. there are many improved and approved new types albeit stricter regulations in aviation today.

        Actually my comment was not meant totally seriously, i.e. although I understood Rod’s analogy my intention was to just add the little side note that also the aviation industry had to actually deal with stronger regulations since the DC-9 was initially certified (next time I will add an smiley). And well, after DV82XL outed her/himself as a DC-3/9 lover, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t my intention to put his favorite plane into a bad light.

      • Jason Kobos says:

        OK, I apologies for misreading.

  5. Mehran says:

    from what I understand of it, the accident had two factors it.

    a few design flaws coupled with poor understand of the reactors they were controlling.

    I don’t really blame the staff at Chernobyl for the accident. I world blame the system that did not train them correctly and did not give them the understanding of the possible outcome of by-passing the safely systems.

    I live 4 miles away from an British advanced gas cooled reactor. Though they lost out to water cooled reactors still think they have the edge for safely.

  6. Chuck P. says:

    @ Mist,
    I’m sure Rod’s point is that the nuclear indutries in western countries already have achieved those four requirements and that no additional levels of regulation are required. In fact, there probably exist levels of regulation that do not contribute to those points that could be removed with no reduction in the level of safety.

    • msit says:

      I don’t want to know, how often point 1 and 2 were violated in western county nuclear industries because of time pressure, economically pressure etc during the last 25 years.

      Point 3 we don’t need to discuss – it was of course inherent of the reactor design used in Chernobyl.

      I am not sure about point 4: if somebody has to decide about building a plant in the economically most viable way, how much does he care about “sufficient defense”? I think that strongly correlates with the level of regulation. I am pretty sure Chernobyl’s “defense lines” where built according to accepted regulation guidelines at that time in the Soviet Union.

      • Rod Adams says:

        @msit – the analysis of economic viability includes the ability to withstand all conceivable impacts and remain capable of future operation and revenue generation.

        The economics of nuclear energy – with a great deal of capital intensity and low operating costs due to very low fuel costs – leads an analyst to compute that a few extra dollars worth of protection of the asset are a good investment. Cutting corners on protection is for gas turbines where the fuel cost is 90% of the total cost of electricity generation.

        Losing a generator is just not that big a deal – look at the impact of the explosion at Middletown, CT last January on the industry.

      • msit says:

        Well, I hope so – and I am sure that you personally would do so – but I am pretty sure there will be always people who think some “shanty” will be good enough (well, Chernobyl is kind of a example for exactly this).

        • Rod Adams says:

          Remember, Chernobyl was a reactor that was built by a country where there was no private enterprise and no profit motive. The choices made there were often driven by political goals. The RBMK was a dual purpose design that was configured to all production of both electricity and weapons grade material by products. Short cuts are often taken when the political leaders make the decisions.

          The US has a constitution that is infused with the concept of checks and balances. The government has a legitimate questioning role for protecting health and safety and general good; private enterprise has a legitimate role in making investment decisions that will continue to pay off long after the specific decision makers have moved on. I will grant that there have always been perversions of the role of private investment by some who seek quick returns, but I am confident that there are few to none of those kinds of people making nuclear energy investments. The returns, though potentially very solid, do not happen quickly.

          That is one reason why “Wall Street” has little interest in financing nuclear energy – another primary reason is the recognition by some hard nosed number crunchers that success in nuclear will spell losses in fossil. There is a LOT of capital at stake, but I cannot help it if they were too short sighted to read the technical writing on the wall.

      • msit says:

        Well, I agree with that – although one might argue it is a very idealistic view and unfortunately turn out differently in reality. Probably one of the motivations for strict regulation of something by the state/government (not specially only the nuclear industry) is to compensate for this – and admittedly it quite often turns in over-compenstation – to balance this is probably very hard.