20 Years Later, Chernobyl Still Weighs on Nuclear Efforts
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RAY SUAREZ: Memorial services were held across Europe today to commemorate the Chernobyl disaster; this one was held in the town built for Chernobyl workers.
The pre-dawn explosion at the reactor spewed radiation across much of Northern Europe, especially neighboring Belarus. It absorbed about 70 percent of the fallout.
It took two days for Soviet leaders to acknowledge and report the accident to the world and to their own people. Many of the journalists who took these pictures later died from the effects of exposure to radiation.
The aftermath of the disaster still scars the ex-Soviet Republic. A 1,200-square-mile area around the plant, known as the “exclusion zone,” is still deserted two decades after the explosion. Radioactivity in the surrounding area remains high, almost 50,000 times the normal level.
The children of Western Ukraine and neighboring Belarus must be constantly tested for traces of long-lasting radioactive cesium and strontium-90 and contract cancers not usually seen in children.
KUL GAUTAM, Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF: We now have over 4,000 cases of children suffering from thyroid cancer. But, you know, thyroid cancer is only the tip of the iceberg.
RAY SUAREZ: Widespread, lingering health problems are one of the reasons the potential death toll remains fiercely debated. Studies published by different U.N. agencies have concluded that between 4,000 and 9,500 people, most of whom helped clean up the accident, are expected to die from radiation exposure.
The governments of Ukraine and Belarus dispute those figures, saying more than 30,000 have already died since the accident, while other organizations, including Greenpeace, project that deaths over time may reach 93,000.
The disaster at Chernobyl happened seven years after the worst accident in U.S. nuclear history at Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pennsylvania. Although there were no deaths or injuries at Three Mile Island, that accident sparked sweeping changes in how U.S. Nuclear facilities operate, including stricter enforcement of regulations and more emergency response training.
There are currently 103 operating nuclear plants in 31 U.S. states, about a quarter of the world’s total. These plants generate roughly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.
No U.S. Nuclear facility has been licensed since 1978, one year before the accident at Three Mile Island. That’s something President Bush has vowed to change.
Amid the rising cost of energy, the president made promoting alternative energy sources, including nuclear, one of his top priorities.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Nuclear power is another of America’s most important sources of electricity. Of all our nation’s energy sources, only nuclear power plants can generate massive amounts of electricity without emitting an ounce of air pollution or greenhouse gases. Thanks to the advances in science and technology, nuclear plants are far safer than ever before.
RAY SUAREZ: There has not been a major accident or reactor failure in the U.S. since Three Mile Island, despite safety concerns and occasional plant closings.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, for more on where nuclear power stands today, we’re joined by Patrick Moore, co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which promotes nuclear power and is funded by the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute. He was the co- founder of the environmental group Greenpeace, but left that organization nearly 20 years ago.
And Paul Gunter joins us, the director of the Reactor Watchdog Project at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an information and networking center which opposes the expansion of nuclear power.
Patrick Moore, the explosion at Chernobyl was 20 years ago. Why have there been no accidents of that magnitude since then?
PATRICK MOORE, Clean and Safe Energy Coalition: Well, first, because we learned a lot of lessons from that and from Three Mile Island.
It’s most important, though, to recognize that Chernobyl should never have been built. It was an accident waiting to happen. That early class of Soviet reactor had no containment dome, and therefore the radiation was free to spew out into the environment when there was an explosion inside.
Whereas at Three Mile Island, which is the worst accident and the only really bad accident that has ever happened in Western reactors, the radiation was completely contained and no one was killed or even injured in Three Mile Island.
RAY SUAREZ: Paul Gunter, is there also an element of luck? The other reactors at Chernobyl stayed in operation for years afterwards.
PAUL GUNTER, Nuclear Information and Resource Service: Well, one of the concerns, of course, is that — I think to correct the record, Three Mile Island, even by the NRC’s account, released 10 million curies of radiation into the environment.
And at that time, there were wide open pathways for a radioactive cloud to pass without being detected. And there’s a lot of anecdotal information about health concerns and radiation sickness that was associated with that release.
But I think there is — in fact, we’ve had a number of close calls since the Chernobyl accident, most recently at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station just outside of Toledo, Ohio.
And, clearly, the main concern is, is that the power plant was operating on a production agenda that subordinated the testing, surveillance and maintenance of that facility, and a corrosive event ate through 6 3/4 inches of carbon steel in the reactor vessel head, narrowly missing an accident that would dwarf the Three Mile Island accident, and maybe even come close to the Chernobyl catastrophe.
And that’s documented by national labs. We were perhaps as close as two, three months from such an accident occurring because of the corrosion.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Patrick Moore, how do you respond to an alarm bell like that? There have been contaminated water releases, various venting of gases, you know, small accidents over the years that point, as Mr. Gunter suggests, to something that could have been more serious.
PATRICK MOORE: Well, first the anecdotal evidence, as he says, around Three Mile Island is just that; there’s been scores of studies done by the Philadelphia health authorities and by the Pennsylvania health authorities.
There’s all kinds of work done at a very deep level on Three Mile Island, and there is not a single piece of evidence indicating any increased health problems of any kind there, and that can be corroborated with the actual studies.
I mean, it’s his word against mine here, but anecdotal doesn’t mean much to me.
The other thing is, is it’s pure speculation to say that the reactor he’s speaking about in New York was going to have a Chernobyl-like accident; there’s absolutely no evidence of that.
The fact is that no individual has died in a radiation-related accident in the history of civilian nuclear power in the United States and no one was injured at Three Mile Island. And no one has been injured anywhere as a result of a release.
Six thousand coal miners die every year in this world. Nuclear energy is actually, if you look at the statistics, one of the safest industries in this world, and it also is one of the cleanest industries in this world, in that it does not release greenhouse gases.
And I don’t know if Mr. Gunter is worried about climate change or not, but coal-fired power plants in the United States emit 10 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, fully 10 percent from that one source. And it is easily fixed by building nuclear plants.
And instead of building new coal plants, because the way things are going now, coal power will increase in the U.S. and U.S. greenhouse gases will continue to go up, as they have been ever since the Kyoto Accord was signed, and so have the whole world’s CO-2 emissions continued to go up. You see, there’s two schools of thought in the environmental movement. One school of thought is that we can phase out both fossil fuels and nuclear energy and do the whole thing with renewables.
Well, fossils and nuclear are 80 percent of the U.S. electricity supply. There’s other people who believe that, if we want to phase out fossils to any substantial degree, there is no alternative but a combination of renewables plus nuclear, in other words clean energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gases.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you put a lot on the table. First, let me get a response to safer and cleaner.
PAUL GUNTER: Well, in fact, the University of North Carolina did do a study on the Three Mile Island event. And it was their conclusion, through their epidemiological study, that there were statistically significant cancer clusters as a result of that accident.
So it’s more than just anecdotal. It in fact is — you know, studies are showing that there was a consequence there.
But, again, safe and clean are oxymorons for nuclear power, in light of the fact that they produce tremendous amounts of radiation, as well as carbon emissions in the fuel cycle. But if we want to address…
RAY SUAREZ: But safer and cleaner than the alternatives, which is what Mr. Moore suggested.
PAUL GUNTER: Well, in fact, if we were to ramp up new reactors and bring in — you know, we stretch the uranium supply to the point where, in fact, processing would increase carbon emissions from the fuel cycle.
And, you know, it remains a concern that there are much more quicker means to get to global abatement, you know, climate change abatement through energy efficiency and conservation. For every dollar that you spend on energy efficiency, you’re going to abate three times more carbon than going to nuclear power, and you’re going to get there a lot quicker, as well.
The issue is, is that if we spend — if we go back down this road for nuclear power, which is a failed energy policy of, you know, with the 1950s, we will lose the precious time and the precious resources that could go into renewable-energy hybrid, solar, and wind, coupled with energy efficiency and conservation, with an aggressive program, where even national laboratories here in the United States are saying that 47 percent of our demand can be cut by energy efficiency and conservation.
RAY SUAREZ: What do you say, Mr. Moore?
PATRICK MOORE: We have already done an incredible job with conservation and efficiency. Since 1973, the U.S. economy has grown by 157 percent, and energy use has only grown by 32 percent.
That’s a 1.5 percent increase in efficiency and conservation every year, and it’s projected to continue to be 1.8 percent into the future.
But the economy is growing faster than that, and so energy requirements will increase, even though they won’t increase as fast as the economy. Sorry, yes, they won’t increase as fast as the economy.
Wind and solar are wonderful things, but unfortunately they are intermittent and unreliable. You cannot use them for base-load energy. There are really only three sources of base-load electricity: nuclear, coal and hydroelectric.
Hydroelectric is largely built out in the United States. There just isn’t that much more capacity, so it’s really a question of nuclear versus coal for the base-load electricity.
Natural gas is too expensive. It’s too volatile in price. And actually a big mistake was made in investing so much money in natural gas plants over the last 20 years, because it’s kind of the path of least resistance.
And everybody knows that coal is dirty and has huge CO-2 emissions, and everybody is afraid of nuclear for no good reason. And, you know, you go within 10 miles of nuclear plants in the United States, and polling shows that 80 percent of the people who live within 10 miles of a nuke are in favor of nuclear energy, and not including the workers in the plant.
Seventy percent of the American public is in favor of nuclear energy. And yet to listen to the media today, you’d really never know that. It’s still very biased, in terms of using the sort of scare approach and using the fearsome nature, when there isn’t actually anything to be afraid of.
As I said, there hasn’t been any serious accidents since Three Mile Island. It’s the only serious accident there’s ever been, and no one was injured in it.
RAY SUAREZ: Paul Gunter, if some of the concerns you’ve expressed about pollution, about volatility, and about safety could be addressed with new technologies, is it possible to ramp up nuclear to the extent that Mr. Moore is suggesting, to keep up with economic growth?
PAUL GUNTER: Well, you know, according to the studies by Massachusetts Institute for Technology, that would take on the order of 1,500 to 2,000 nuclear power stations globally. You know, right now we’ve got 438.
So if we go down this road that the nuclear industry is proposing, we’re talking about three times more than what is currently out there.
And, you know, the industry had a 50-year opportunity on the — you know, to market itself and to stand up on its own two feet, yet what’s been demonstrated is an industry that’s unable to do that without relying on the U.S. taxpayer and tremendous subsidies.
And even then, safety, and security, and public health concerns, you know, continue to grow, as profit margins, and safety margins, and security margins continue to compete in this ever more competitive electricity market. And we’re concerned that public health, and safety, and security is losing out in that race.
RAY SUAREZ: Patrick Moore, have we figured out what to do with spent fuel in a way that would match the supply of that stuff, after it has its useful life in the number of plants you’re suggesting would be built?
PATRICK MOORE: Yes, we certainly have. And, fortunately, the Energy Act lifted the ban on recycling spent fuel or used fuel. It’s not fair to call it nuclear waste, because 95 percent of the potential energy still remains in the used fuel when it’s gone through its first cycle.
Our approach to it should be secure and safe storage until it’s time to recycle it in 30 or 40 years. It’s not a question of millions of years. When you recycle it, you get the 95 percent energy back out of it again, and the waste that remains is much less dangerous and doesn’t need to be stored for anywhere near as long.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me get a quick response from Mr. Gunter.
PAUL GUNTER: Obviously, you can’t separate nuclear waste from nuclear weapons, as well. So if we’re talking about ramping this industry up even more, we’re talking about, not only a proliferation of nuclear waste, but a proliferation of nuclear weapons worldwide.
RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thanks a lot.
PATRICK MOORE: Iran does not have a nuclear reactor.