We must heed the lessons of Chernobyl

Pat Hynes and Randy Kehler

Reprinted courtesy of the Recorder, Greenfield MA

On the morning of April 26, 1986, an explosion in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant released a radioactive plume which hurtled four miles into the atmosphere. An intense fire burned in the reactor core for 10 days, continuously spewing radioactive particles and aerosols. Belarus, western Russia, and rich farmland of the Ukraine were immediately and severely contaminated. Winds carried tons of particles to many parts of Europe and throughout the Northern Hemisphere, blanketing 77,000 square miles with radioisotopes of iodine, cesium, strontium and plutonium.

The consequences of Chernobyl are staggering. About 350,000 people were evacuated and many continue to live in perpetual anxiety about the health effects of their radiation exposure. Estimates of cancer rates and deaths from Chernobyl vary greatly due to study assumptions, methods, geographical scope and politics. The highest estimate of overall mortality is 985,000 people. The lowest estimate derives from U.N. studies, where pronuclear politics limit and potentially corrupt their findings. The pronuclear politics are girded by the 1959 signed agreement between the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Association to withhold confidential information where they deem it necessary.

As of 2007, nearly 400 sheep farms in the U.K. remained in quarantine from radioactive fallout. In many European countries, restrictions on wild game, berries, mushrooms and fish will be in effect for many years.

Former Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev recently published his lessons learned from Chernobyl. It is “a shocking reminder of the reality of the nuclear threat.” The nuclear power industry is not cost-effective and it survives through secrecy and deceit, having kept private “some 150 significant radiation leaks at nuclear power stations over the world.” Gorbachev calls for a rapid transition to “efficient, safe and renewable energy which will bring enormous economic, social, and environmental benefits.”

The lessons of Chernobyl are strikingly akin to the lessons at hand from the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima nuclear reactors and “spent fuel” storage pools. Catastrophic risk — no matter how low with improved design, siting, materials, safety systems and trained operators — is inherent in nuclear power.

Perhaps the best news to come out of the dire situation in Fukushima is Germany’s response. The fourth largest economy in the world — at the behest of the German people and utilities’ industry — is accelerating its phaseout of nuclear power and shifting even more aggressively to renewable energy.

Local lessons and actions

Could a Fukushima-like disaster happen here in the U.S.? Could it happen at the nearby Vermont Yankee? The straightforward answer is YES. No complex technology, be it a nuclear reactor or a deep-water oil drill, can be made 100 percent “failsafe.”

Consider that Vermont Yankee and 22 other U.S. reactors are of almost identical age, design and make (General Electric Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactors) as the reactors melting down in Fukushima. All have highly radioactive used fuel rods sitting above ground outside the reactor containment vessel and requiring a constant flow of cooling water in order to avoid meltdowns. Shockingly, Vermont Yankee’s fuel pool contains nearly 40 years of spent fuel rods, hundreds of tons more than the fuel pools of all six Fukushima reactors combined.

Consider also that the immediate cause of the Fukushima meltdown was an electrical failure (back-up diesel generators were rendered inoperative due to flooding). Electrical failures can be caused by any number of things: equipment failure, sabotage, terrorism, human error, etc.

Let us not forget that Vermont Yankee has been plagued in recent years by one accident or breakdown after another: a fire in the transformer building, collapsed cooling towers, cracks in the steam dryer, leakages of radioactive substances into the soil and groundwater, and, yes, electrical failures. Also remember that its owner, Entergy Nuclear, has a track record of cost-cutting and deferred maintenance as well as a record of “misleading” statements to Vermont officials, even under oath.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that while the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has warned U.S. citizens in Japan to stay at least 50 miles away from Fukushima, the NRC considers 10 miles to be a sufficient radius for evacuation zones around U.S. reactors. Most residents of these 10-mile zones will tell you that effective evacuation in the event of a disaster would be impossible.

What can we, as citizens who live well within 50 miles of Vermont Yankee, do? Plenty. Through letters to newspapers, phone calls to elected officials, call-ins to radio talk-shows and participation in vigils and rallies, we can add our voices to the growing number of people in this tristate area demanding that Vermont Yankee shut down as soon as possible — in any case, no later than March 21, 2012, when its original 40-year license expires. With enough political will and public effort, nuclear power can soon be replaced by safe, renewable energy technologies that already exist, coupled with major efficiency and conservations measures on the part of people, communities and businesses.

(For information about upcoming events and actions, go to the websites of the Safe & Green Campaign and the Citizens Awareness Network

No new nuclear reactors have been built in the U.S. in over 30 years. Let’s make sure the tragedies in Chernobyl and Japan move us to ensure that no new U.S. reactors are built, and that all the existing ones are phased out as rapidly as possible.

Future generations are counting on us.

Patricia Hynes lives in Montague, chairs the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice, and is a member of the Nuclear Free Future Coalition of Western Massachusetts.

Randy Kehler lives in Colrain and is the Massachusetts coordinator of the Safe & Green Campaign.