The words, “I told you so” sometimes brings guilty pleasure when uttered to your teenager or under your breath to a spouse. Uttering those words today brings nothing but despair and frustration at the worldwide lack of common sense and an adolescent level of simple risk management.
As I write this, the world is watching helplessly to see if the nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan will reach the level of the signature nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl in 1986. For anyone who thinks this shouldn't portend the death knell to the nuclear power “renaissance,” the contents of a new book should be required reading.
Written by Russian and Belarus experts, edited and published by the New York Academy of Sciences, the book, “Chernobyl : Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” is by far the most well-researched book on the issue. Drawing from over 5,000 published articles and studies, the authors arrive at startling conclusions. Among them:
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So far one million people from around the world have already died from Chernobyl radiation, including over 110,000 of the original 830,000 clean up workers. High doses of radioactive fallout reached much of Europe and the UK. 750 million people in the Northern Hemisphere received significant contamination. The release was 200 times more radiation than previously thought, hundreds of times more than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The authors stated, “There is a danger greater than nuclear weapons concealed within nuclear power. No citizen of any country can be assured that he or she can be protected from radioactive contamination. One nuclear reactor can pollute half the globe. Chernobyl fallout covers the entire Northern Hemisphere.”
The percentage of healthy children born in Belarus, the Ukraine and European Russia fell from 80 percent to less than 20 percent after the 1986 accident. The health consequences include increased fetal and infant deaths, birth defects, diseases of every organ system, cancers and noncancerous tumors. Photographs of the tumors and birth defects are frightening.
Bird populations in California plummeted a month after Chernobyl and there is no other plausible explanation. Other species still show marked contamination: livestock, birds, fish, plants and trees. Grazing sheep in the UK, 2,000 miles away, still have high levels of radioactive Cesium 137. Over 1,000 square miles in the Ukraine still contain enough radioactivity to prohibit human habitation for hundreds of years.
Last year, Ukraine's president warned that the reactor ruins remain a serious threat. Most of Chernobyl's radioactivity is still in those ruins that are encased in a rapidly deteriorating concrete shell vulnerable to collapse. Urgent work to construct a giant steel coffin over it is far behind schedule and the Ukraine is asking – begging really – for financial help to complete the project.
It is common rhetoric that US reactors are much better designed – a half truth at best. In 1986, Chernobyl 4 was state of the art and its lid was stronger than domes covering some plants in the US. Soviet engineers pronounced it meltdown proof, and that, even if the worst happened, the lid would hold. Because of their older design, a meltdown in many US reactors would release far more radiation than Chernobyl. Numerous close calls have occurred among the aging US reactors in addition to our own Three Mile Island accident. High cancer and infant mortality rates in Pennsylvania, especially Dauphin County, defy the common belief that no one died at Three Mile Island.
At least new nuclear plants are safe, right? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled the flagship of new designs, the Toshiba-Westinghouse AP-1000, unable to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes, and has a critical flaw that could cause it to explode.
We should have learned by now that extreme scientific endeavors are high risk. Several deepwater oil drilling catastrophes, two space shuttle explosions, three nuclear meltdowns and multiple nuclear near misses certainly illustrate the point.
Even without accidents and earthquakes, nuclear power is a public health hazard. Every phase of the nuclear fuel cycle – the mining, milling, processing, routine power plant operations, waste transportation and storage – releases a steady stream of radioactivity into our environment. There is no such thing as a “safe” amount of radiation exposure. Even small increases in radiation exposure increases everyone's risk slightly.
When hundreds of millions of people have their health risks increased slightly, even in a best-case scenario there will be tens of thousands of victims, which certainly qualifies as a public health disaster. But Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima and Daiichi teaches us that the nuclear industry's history, like the oil industry's, was never close to best-case scenario and there certainly is no reason to believe their future will be either.
At some point, parents must lay down the law with teenage misbehavior. Worldwide, all adults must now lay down the law with our adolescent politicians and nuclear industry cheerleaders. The nuclear renaissance must be buried once and for all. “We told you so.”