Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chernobyl and Fukushima

25 years later...and looking at it might teach us lessons, even now, about nuclear safety.

The entombed reactor is still dangerously 'hot', and the concrete sarcophagus is crumbling. It will cost over a billion dollars to replace it and maintaining the site still requires active attention...and will for decades. 350,000 people were permanently relocated. A no-go zone of 1,500 square miles is returning to nature.

What about long term health? People who were children or adolescents at the time and lived close to the plant have a greatly increased risk of thyroid cancer. (The thyroid gland tends to concentrate radiation, hence why iodine tablets are useful in cases of radiation exposure). Workers who actively assisted in controlling the fire have double the risk of leukemia.

What has not happened, though, is the true radiation bugbear. There is absolutely no indication that there has been an increase in mutations and congenital deformities amongst humans exposed to Chernobyl. As bad as it was...it may have proved that long term, germ line effects are unlikely in the extreme.

Now we have Fukushima. And this will be used as evidence to retrench further from building nuclear plants. True. Fission is dangerous. But the health risks of being close to a nuclear plant, most of the time, are less than associated with coal burning (itself reduced by modern safety measures).

And what everyone seems to be forgetting is that Japan has fourteen other actively operating nuclear plants...none of which had any problems after the magnitude 9.0 quake. In some ways, this reminds me of all the fuss about airline disasters. Flying is the safest means of transport, but because one accident can take so many lives, it is perceived as dangerous.

(Just to compare, 48 coal miners died in 2010 in the United States. China, where mine safety standards are far laxer had over two and a half thousand fatalities in 2009...whilst only sixty deaths are so far recorded from radiation exposure associated with Chernobyl).