This is a review on Elena Filatova’s A Tour of Chernobyl. Submitted to the SMIC Student Journal of Science.
In Elena Filatova’s narrative of her journey through Chernobyl, she reminds us about the other side of nuclear energy – the horrifying effects of a potential nuclear catastrophe, which has already happened for the second time with the disaster at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Though the risks are relatively small, nuclear power plants incite much public fear due to its long-term environmental effects further exacerbated by the release of apocalyptic movies and sensational media.
The potential effects of a serious nuclear disaster are unlike that of conventional fuels. Contrary to popular opinion, “fossil fuels do far more harm than nuclear power” (Columbia University). Based on mortality data from air pollution-related diseases as well as the three major nuclear incidents – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima – nuclear power prevented 1.8 million deaths between 1971 and 2009 due to the reduced risk of lung disease (ibid.). However, unlike pollution produced by conventional fuel, the contamination released by a nuclear disaster can last for generations and can render a location uninhabitable. Air pollution may persist in the air, but it is easily mitigated (as seen in the “APEC blue” phenomenon observed in Beijing). Air pollution from conventional fuel is a relatively low but widespread risk, whereas nuclear catastrophes are highly dangerous yet rare. However, isolated catastrophes with significant effects are more likely to be noticed by society.
So what would happen if a Chernobyl-level disaster happened in the United States or China? Before evaluating the consequences, it is important to note that according to expert Andrew Leatherbarrow, a similar disaster cannot possibly take place as the United States as it does not use the Soviet graphite-moderated RBMK reactors (Business Insider). But if such a disaster were to occur, whether it be in China or the United States, what matters most is the plant’s proximity to dense clusters of people. Many reactors are not located in city centers, but are in coastal locations (or near water) such as that of Fukushima, perhaps an example of a relatively stable evacuation. Nearby areas would certainly have to be evacuated. In the short term, this will cause severely increased radiation exposure to those in the area as well as economic losses and social disorder. In the long term, the nearby areas will need to remain evacuated. As the radiation spreads by air or by water, as seen in Fukushima, there will be slightly increased cancer rates around the world. Another long-term effect is the need for containment. In Fukushima, proposals such as building an underground ice wall have been made, but not much progress has been made due to a lack of funding (The Japan Times). The people impacted most severely depends on whether the plant is located near a city or in more rural areas. However, as China and the United States are both relatively populous compared to Russia, it is likely that fallout will reach millions or even tens of millions of people depending on the position of the plant.
In consideration of the potentially horrific and widespread effects of failed nuclear power, public fears are indeed justified. However, that does not mean that nuclear power should not be used: as shown by Kharecha and Hansen’s research cited earlier on, fossil fuels cause many more deaths than nuclear energy (Columbia University). As time progresses, nuclear facilities will also become less susceptible to these catastrophes. All in all, until renewable energy can be harnessed on a large scale, nuclear power is the least of many evils.
Kharecha, Pushker A, and James E. Hansen. “Fossil Fuels Do Far More Harm Than Nuclear Power.” State of the Planet. Columbia University, 15 April 2013. Web. 13 March 2017. http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2013/04/15/fossil-fuels-do-far-more-harm-than-nuclear-power/
Kramer, Sarah. “Here’s why a Chernobyl-style nuclear meltdown can’t happen in the United States.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 26 April 2016. Web. 13 March 2017. http://www.businessinsider.com/chernobyl-meltdown-no-graphite-us-nuclear-reactors-2016-4
Nagata, Kazuaki. “Tepco workers face mental health crisis after cost cuts: counselor.” The Japan Times. The Japan Times, 14 August 2012. Web. 13 March 2017. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2012/08/14/national/tepco-workers-face-mental-health-crisis-after-cost-cuts-counselor/#.WMbC1hKGO9Y