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.