It is impossible to separate the reaction to Chernobyl from the long-standing rivalry between the Communist and the Capitalist economic systems. The Chernobyl nuclear station was never viewed as just an electricity generator, it was billed as a technological triumph of Communism. The station was bigger, more rapidly built and supposedly better managed than anything that the west could produce.
When Unit 4 blew up, it became a huge opportunity for those who wanted to point out the weaknesses of the Soviet system. It is endlessly repeated that a Chernobyl style reactor could never be licensed in the west and that the operators of western reactors would never violate written procedures in such a cavalier manner as the Soviet operators did.
According to a 1987 essay by Isaac Asimov the American news media had the full support of the Reagan Administration in their efforts to publicize the effects of the accident. The effort helped to satisfy the short term goal of weakening the strength of what Reagan referred to as “the evil empire.”
Western governments were not the only ones to make political use of the accident. Nationalist movements in reluctant member countries of the Soviet Union discovered that the accident provided an effective way of gaining international support for their efforts to gain independence from Moscow. The word “Chernobyl” became a symbol of all that was bad about the centrally controlled economy that imposed its technology on client states like the Ukraine, Belorussia, and Lithuania.
Interestingly enough, the tactic worked. International and internal reaction to the Chernobyl accident is widely credited with contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Another motive for emphasizing the accident has received little attention. With all the talk about national energy policies, renewable energy goals, efficiency and conservation, people often forget that selling fuel is a huge and profitable business.
When nuclear reactors are shut down or when planned reactors are converted to fossil fuel power plants, one predictable result is increased revenues for the company or country that sells replacement fuel. Replacing the output of a single Chernobyl sized unit can require the consumption of several hundred million dollars worth of fossil fuel per year.
Since the price of fossil fuels is determined by supply and demand balances that are maintained by production quotas enforced with varying degrees of success by international cartels and government bodies, increased sales from replacing nuclear output can improve the profitability of all who are involved in the business.
There is little doubt that fossil fuel marketers and their political friends understand this supply and demand relationship. There is also little doubt that there are highly trained public affairs specialists employed by the companies and their industrial associations who know the value of press attention to the perceived weaknesses of the nuclear industry.
It is interesting to note that continued international efforts to shut down the remaining operational reactors at Chernobyl are led by interests that want to sell replacement fuel and by organizations that want to sell power generating equipment. The Ukraine desperately needs the power supplied by the reactors; it does not need to spend money that could be used for other industrial development on replacement power systems and fuel.