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9 Comments

  1. As I mentioned earlier on the Depleted Cranium blog, the only scenario where I believe a Chernobyl-type disaster could be repeated would be an illegal nuclear reactor. This could be a reactor built by terrorists to produce plutonium, or one built by criminals to sell black-market electricity in a country where electricity is very expensive and nuclear power is banned.
    An illegal nuclear reactor would have to be able to run on natural uranium, as enrichment infrastructure would be impossible to conceal from the authorities. A graphite-moderated, water-cooled design would be ideal, as it would be smaller than a Magnox-style gas-cooled reactor.

  2. @ Rod – Probably good that you didn’t mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In both cases, the weapons were detonated at altitudes sufficient enough to prevent the fireball from intersecting with the ground. This limited the amount of bomb debris that mixed with material from the ground so there wasn’t’ any local fallout. Pretty much the only radioactivity left on the ground was from neutron activation of building materials near GZ. We also have to be careful not to directly compare the prompt high dose from a weapon to a chronic dose to tissue from a particle of plutonium or americium lodged in the lung.

  3. Don’t know if you have ever read this, ‘THE NUCLEAR ENERGY OPTION’
    Professor Emeritus, Bernard L. Cohen, University of Pittsburgh, Published by Plenum Press, 1990
    It’s online. The chapters on the design of the Chernobyl plant and the details of the accident and aftermath are the most detailed I’ve read. In fact, the whole book is terrific.

  4. The following main lessons can be deduced from this accident:
    (1) Ionizing radiation killed only a few occupationally exposed people. Due to rapid decay of short-lived radionuclides, the Chernobyl fallout did not expose the general population to harmful radiation doses. This is a completely different situation than after a surface explosion of a nuclear bomb, where the lethal fallout can cover tens of thousands km2, and endanger the life of millions of people.
    (2) The reported excess of thyroid cancers in children and in adults exposed to Chernobyl fallout is not consistent with the knowledge on effects of medical use of iodine-131. The report of an “excess” appears to be an effect of screening, and is only a small fraction of the normal occult thyroid cancers incidence occurring in populations unexposed to iodine-131. It disingenuous to continue to invoke latency every time actual results fail to meet the dire predictions made previously. We were told shortly after the event, when the immediate death toll was found to be minimal, that the full impact would not be felt for twenty years. Twenty-five years later, the Cassandras are now saying it could be as much as sixty years before the damage appears, or maybe several generations in the future. At what point do we accept the fact that the impact of this accident has not been anywhere as serious as it was assumed it would be?
    (3) Radionuclides were injected high into the stratosphere, at least up to 15 km altitude, which made possible its long distance migration in the whole Northern Hemisphere, and a penetration over the Equator down to the South Pole. With the extremely sophisticated radiation monitoring systems, implemented in all developed countries, even the most tiny debris from the Chernobyl reactor was easily detected all over the world. No such system exists for any other potentially harmful environmental agent. Ironically, this excellence of radiological protection ignited the mass anxiety, with its disastrous consequences in the former Soviet Union, and strangulation of nuclear energy development elsewhere.
    (4) Psychosomatic disorders and the screening effects were the only detectable health consequences among the general population.
    (5) This was the worst possible catastrophe of a badly constructed nuclear reactor, with a complete meltdown of the reactor core, followed by the ten-days long completely free emission of radionuclides into the atmosphere. Nothing worse could happen. It resulted in a comparatively small occupational death toll, amounting to fraction of each weekend’s traffic toll in most developed nations and tens or hundreds of times lower than that of many other industrial catastrophes, and it is unlikely that any fatalities were caused by radiation among the public. The event was caused by an inherently poor design, shoddy construction coupled with a criminal lack of good judgment. There is simply no rational grounds for continuing to hold this event up as an example of the potential for an accident at any modern nuclear powerplant. In fact if anything it demonstrates just how small the overall impact of a worse-case power excursion and critical loss of containment is even under the poor emergency response conditions that were in place at the time.

  5. ‘Order of magnitude’ – just noting that in your comment in response to the Telegraph article you used the expression ‘orders of magnitude’. IMO the majority of the public doesn’t understand this expression the way the technical community does. To us, of course, an order of magnitude is a scaling by a factor of 10. To much of the public, this most likely means ‘a lot bigger (or smaller)’.
    I suggest that in comments for the general public, and especially for environmentalists and deniers of all sorts, we be more specific. Say hundreds, thousands, and millions of times when we mean 2, 3, and 6 orders of magnitude. I suspect that most people didn’t really understand exponential notation when they encountered it in school.

    1. @Andrew Jaremko
      You may be right, but I am not trying to convince anyone whose education and curiosity about the world is at a level where they do not understand “orders of magnitude” and exponential notation. I reject the theory that the obstacle to developing nuclear energy comes from the uneducated. The real obstacle now is attracting sufficient financial backing to move forward. I hope that there are a few sophisticated decision makers and investors reading what I write and thinking about how nuclear energy offers the opportunity to get out of the deepening fossil fuel hole that our global economy is in.
      If people do not understand the impact of “orders of magnitude” words like billions, trillions and quadrillions do not mean much.

  6. Just in case you’ve not seen the new UNSCEAR report:
    http://www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/Advance_copy_Annex_D_Chernobyl_Report.pdf
    Basically it confirms the previous report albeit with more evidence.
    The vast majority of the population were exposed to low levels of radiation comparable, at most, to or a few times the annual natural background radiation levels and need not live in fear of serious health consequences. This is true for the populations of the three countries most affected by the Chernobyl accident, Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, and even more so for the populations of other European countries. Lives have been disrupted by the Chernobyl accident, but from the radiological point of view, generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail.

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