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.
Before 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.
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.