Chernobyl and the costs of power

When I first heard of HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl, it didn’t sound like something I’d be interested in watching.  I generally don’t have a fascination for disaster porn and that’s mostly what it seemed like from a distance.  But after numerous friends described it as compelling, I finally checked it out, and spent the whole day yesterday watching it.

I remember the news reports about Chernobyl.  I was in college at the time and only sporadically followed the news in those days.  The early reports were fragmentary and contradictory.  It seemed like it was weeks before a somewhat more comprehensive account was available in the weekly news magazines of the time.  I recall a dramatic black and white picture of what remained of the reactor core, with a remark that the photo was taken using a mirror since to actually get a direct line of sight on the core was a death sentence.

The HBO series fills in a lot of gaps, and while I fully realize it took some dramatic liberties, from all all accounts, it’s broadly an accurate portrayal.  The fate of the plant workers and first response firefighters will haunt me for some time, as will the sheer incompetence of the leadership involved.

But I think it’s a mistake to only blame the event on Soviet dysfunction.  If there’s one lesson that shouts out to me about Chernobyl, it’s that sooner or later, humans will be human and mess up.  It’s often said that nuclear power is safe.  This is often repeated as mantra despite a long history of nuclear accidents, including major ones like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

Not that this is necessarily a post against nuclear power.  As dangerous as it is, its effects on the environment are far less than conventional energy sources such as fossil fuels.  I’m not sure our civilization has much choice but to use it, at least until renewable energy becomes effective enough to take over.  But we should remember that we’re riding demons here, ones that will turn on us unless we’re constantly vigilant.

But the broader lesson is that all power comes at a cost.  The cost of burning natural gas or gasoline comes with the ever present danger of fire and explosions.  The cost of burning fossil fuels are carbon in the atmosphere.  The cost of nuclear energy are nuclear waste and the ever present possibility of a catastrophic disaster.

Science fiction often posits future energy sources that provide more power than we currently have.  But what isn’t often mentioned is what costs might be entailed with using those sources.  Fusion is often presented as a clean alternative to fission, but I suspect there will be costs associated with it we can’t see yet.

And when we think about speculative concepts like antimatter reactors, black hole engines, or warp drives, we should be clear about how dangerous that power could be if something goes wrong.  Imagine a warp drive, with its ability to warp spacetime on interstellar scales, fired up on the surface of a planet, or even near a star.  And it’s a fact that anyone with an interplanetary space drive typically found in space opera has the ability with simple kinetic energy to cause mass destruction.

The lessons of Chernobyl and similar events is that eventually someone will screw up.  We can’t put the genie of civilization back into the bottle.  I think we have little choice but to use these types of power sources.  But our strategy for them should take into account that things will go wrong.  It seems as inevitable as death.

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24 Responses to Chernobyl and the costs of power

  1. It would interesting to compare the loss of life between nuclear accidents and fossil fuel accidents. I think you would find the latter would far exceed the former although it may be difficult to determine due to the exacerbated fall-out time related to nuclear. The technology in most of these nuclear reactors is more than 50 years old and it is argued by proponents of nuclear energy that far more sophisticated / advanced technology would greatly enhance the safety aspect of nuclear reactors. I agree with you that nuclear is apparently becoming the only viable option and based on my limited knowledge it appears much cleaner than non-renewable and even in many cases renewable options.

    Liked by 2 people

    • On comparing loss, you could be right. We’re not good at comparing risks. We worry a lot more about shark and terrorist attacks than we do car accidents and heart disease, even though statistically the mundane dangers are much more likely to get us than the exotic ones. It seems pretty likely that a lot more of us die early from fossil fuel pollution than from radiation.

      On the other hand, as the HBO series makes clear, dying from radiation poisoning is a particularly agonizing and gruesome way to go. Watching the series, it seem clear it would have been more merciful to euthanize the patients who’d received fatal doses, although I guess it wasn’t obvious which ones had and hadn’t until the final stages, and it’s a lot easier for me to say that than it would be to actually do it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I did see the trailer for the show and while the subject matter looks compelling and to some extent informative it is unlikely I will watch it. At this moment I lack the fortitude to watch people dying from radiation poisoning.
        Yes, the media has a lot to answer for regarding sensationalising deaths and ignoring the true mass killers in our society. Also, parents have less propensity to just let their kids play and socialise amongst themselves because of the spike of media reporting of kidnapping incidents (as awful as those are).
        Even social media is driving us further apart and in great part causing unprecedented depression numbers particularly in young women. Also adult male suicide has never been higher as we lose sight on having purpose and meaning in our lives in this post-modern epoch.
        In this hyper-sensitive (and sensationalized) social media age, it would appear we need to be even more vigilant of not losing sight of the bigger picture; to keep our perspectives and reality in check preferably with a facts based approach.
        I hope I didn’t take this comment too far away from the intended scope of your post.

        Liked by 1 person

        • On watching people die from radiation sickness, the show doesn’t excessively wallow in it. The more gruesome scenes are quick and limited, just enough to give you an idea of what they went through.

          I actually almost stopped watching it during the first episode. The feeling of just watching a tragedy seemed overwhelming. But in the second episode it gets into the response and the activities taken to deal with the situation, including the politics, and we start to see things from the perspective of the leaders sent to deal with it.

          So it’s not as hard to watch as you’re probably thinking. The characters make it more compelling than it sounds. But it’s definitely not feel good entertainment.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks for elaborating on the extent of gruesomeness in the show. Hehe. I’ll probably take the leap one day, but hold my breath as I dive into episode 1.
            By the way, I always enjoy your insightful posts. In case it interests you I am currently watching Sam Harris’ recent live ‘Town Hall’ talk. I find his explanation about Free Will being and illusion and ‘Loss of Self’ in meditation fascinating. I would imagine you would be familiar with his arguments in those areas. Cheers.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks. I’m broadly familiar with Harris’ arguments, although it’s been awhile since I read him at length. I think he’s right that we don’t have contra-causal free will, but hasty when he concludes that social responsibility is obsolete. I haven’t read his writings on meditation though.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I’m not familiar with his conclusion that ‘social responsibility is obsolete’. Can you elaborate on that?
            He has done a fair few podcasts on meditation (available on his web site) and written at least one book on the subject. His mobile meditation application, ‘Waking Up’ is also free to download and is quite popular I believe.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Honestly it’s been a long time since I read Harris, so I may not be completely up to date, and at this point I might be conflating his views with other free will skeptics like Jerry Coyne. But my understanding of his views was that our lack of contra-causal free will means that holding people responsible for their actions (criminal or just socially questionable) is obsolete. What we really need to do, according to this view, is treat it all as mental illness.

            I do agree with him that retributive justice as a means in an of itself isn’t always productive. I don’t think there are many thinking people who disagree with that proposition. It’s why we ban “cruel and unusual punishment.” But even in a wholly deterministic universe, the prospect of punishment can have productive effects, at least as long as it’s fair and consistent.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Ok, yes I have heard him speak about this point specifically in relation to the Charles Whitman mass shooting and I remember him stating specifically that he does not suggest that this would abdicate people of their social responsibility for their actions and that people be subjected to customary criminal law process and as you put it – to the prospect of fair and consistent punishment. What he does allude to, as in the case of Charles Whitman is that there may be an underlying medical condition which could very well have been significantly causal. The way I see it, the criminal law process already has within it medical/psychological determination of whether the accused was in control of his/her mental faculties at the time the crime was committed.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Morris says:

    You greatly overstate the dangers. Studies have found that not a single death can be attributed either directly or indirectly to either the Fukushima or Three Mile Island accidents.

    The fact is that nuclear power is extremely safe relative to most other forms of power generation. The dangers of coal and gas are far more than simply explosions and CO2. From mining accidents and lung diseases through to particulate pollution, heart disease and mercury poisoning, the WHO has estimated that coal is responsible for more than 1 million deaths per year. Most of these would be preventable if we had not phased out or cancelled builds of nuclear power stations.

    Ironically, burning coal releases 100 times more radioactivity per unit of power generated than the nuclear industry.

    Germany, which shut down its nuclear power plants in response to the Fukushima accident, now generates 40% of its electricity from burning coal.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Greatly overstate the danger? Well, I noted that there is a long history of nuclear accidents and linked to a list of them. I do use the word “dangerous”, so maybe we’re having a difference in opinion on whether that adjective applies?

      Twice it has caused the permanent evacuation of geographic regions along with thousands of deaths in the one that went particularly bad. And in both events, it took heroic sacrifice from a lot of people to avoid having it be much worse.

      I’m with you on the rest. Until there is some other alternative, nuclear power is the devil we need to deal with, because the other devils are worse.

      Like

      • Steve Morris says:

        Don’t mean to go off on a rant, but apart from Chernobyl itself, I am not aware of a single death that can be reliably attributed to a nuclear power accident. 150,000 people die every day worldwide from a wide variety of causes, but not one of them from nuclear power. More people have been killed taking selfies in unsafe locations than from nuclear power. If you ranked dangerous inventions in order of the number of deaths they caused, then nuclear power would rank well below powered lawnmowers, skateboards and beds, not to mention truly dangerous technology such as cars.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. makagutu says:

    Such a good review, Mike.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Not even close to being my cup of tea. Living through the news at the time was plenty for me.

    There are designs for atomic plants where the expected failure modes result in the system shutting down on its own. The idea is to design systems that “relax” into safe states.

    Operational safety isn’t that hard (although we really need to stop with this lowest bidder BS and build them right). The bigger issue with nuclear is waste — it’s the “CO2” of nuclear.

    As you point out, there’s always a cost, and there’s always a danger. And always a tendency to rush ahead for short-term benefits without considering the long-term results. And always a tendency to cut corners and maximize profits.

    Liked by 1 person

    • On being your cup of tea, I had much the same reaction when I first heard about it. But the show was much more watchable than thought it would be. Not that it’s a happy tale by any measure.

      During the Fukushima situation, I remember reading about new thorium based designs where most of the waste is molten and designed to melt into salt, and if there’s a containment problem, it solidifies before it has any serious chance to escape into the environment. It’s actually an old design but because it wasn’t usable in weapons, didn’t see much development during the cold war.

      The last episode of the show has an interesting presentation from the nuclear scientist that led the cleanup effort to a court on what went wrong. It makes clear that the plant supervisor was breathtakingly reckless and incompetent. He set up a situation that led to the reactor going into a runaway reaction.

      Even with that situation, if the RBMK design used by the Soviets hadn’t had a design flaw with graphite tipped control rods, disaster might have been averted when the operators hit the failsafe. Unfortunately, the failsafe caused all the graphite tipped rods to descend and led to a chain reaction that blew the core up, leading to an open air reactor fire and venting fissile material into the atmosphere.

      All of which makes me think that reactor designs need to take into account criminal recklessness and incompetence, because eventually somewhere in the world, that level of negligence will happen.

      Like

  5. J.S. Pailly says:

    Another cost to remember with nuclear power: we have to keep the waste under containment. To meet our energy needs today, we’re creating a problem that people many millions of years into the future will probably still have to deal with.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. milesmutka says:

    I thought the show was overall good, and tastefully done for the most part. There was a lot of detail, and time to go through the details in the miniseries format. The first part had a strong dramatic pull, the middle parts waded through the aftermath, and in the last part the circle was closed, by showing what had happened just before the explosion.

    Of course a lot of the human factor was exaggerated for dramatic effect, both heroism as well as villainy. Increased rates of cancer was also implied many times, but such an increase is very difficult to confirm, due to the statistical nature of the disease. Some of the plot threads just seemed to go nowhere, like the army recruits patrolling the wilds.

    Russian engineering has always had a culture of minimalism, of stripping a mechanism to its barest essentials. This approach has been successful in designs like the Kalashnikov rifle, or the Soyuz spacecraft (compared to the Space Shuttle at least). But simplicity is not a silver bullet any more than complexity is. There is no free lunch.

    Some disasters just seem to resonate in history, like the Titanic or Chernobyl. They attract all kinds of narratives. Of course the reason that we even know about Chernobyl at all is because the smoke rose so high that the wind spread it into western Europe, where it was detected. In Khystym 1957 this was not the case, and very few people have even heard of Lake Karachay, currently considered the worst exposed nuclear waste site in the world. It will never become the kind of tourist attraction that Chernobyl is today.

    There are some applications where nuclear power is hard to replace. Of all the missions to the outer solar system, only one (Juno) has so far been implemented without an RTG, and it only went as far as Jupiter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Some of the plot threads just seemed to go nowhere, like the army recruits patrolling the wilds.”

      I agree. I also thought it was odd that they never showed the construction of the sarcophagus with all its complex logistics, although maybe it wasn’t harrowing enough to warrant.

      “Increased rates of cancer was also implied many times, but such an increase is very difficult to confirm,”

      Particularly in a society where everyone seemed to smoke and drink heavily. It isn’t so much tracking cancer deaths as tracking changes in the frequency, and attempting to strain out confounding influences.

      “In Khystym 1957 this was not the case, and very few people have even heard of Lake Karachay, currently considered the worst exposed nuclear waste site in the world. ”

      I have to admit that while I’d heard of it, I didn’t know it was that bad. The Wikipedia article lists it as the third worst disaster after Cherynobyl and Fukushima. The fact that it happened in the 50s probably also helped keep it unknown. Other countries didn’t have the detection gear they have today. It was a lot easier back then to cover up.

      It’s hard to imagine Voyager or New Horizons type missions without RTGs. Power is one of the things I wonder about for Breakthrough Starshot type initiatives. The problem is that radioactive isotopes aren’t light.

      Like

  7. heatherjo86 says:

    I was very young when this accident happened so I have no knowledge of the details. A coworker just informed me of this series and what’s apparent to me is that man cannot be trusted to handle such dangerous and powerful materials. As you mentioned, mistakes are inevitable and we seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. No matter how important or dangerous, someone cuts corners for quick profits, warnings are ignored, lies are told and ultimately human lives suffer. I often ask myself how much better our world would be if we all did what was right simply because it was the right thing to do. Are we ever going to learn from our mistakes? I look forward to learning more about this. I pray that Jehovah God remembers the victims of this tragedy and we see them again in Paradise (Revelation 21:3,4; John 5:28,29)

    Like

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