It is difficult to decide whether ignorance, complacency or callous cynicism best characterises the nuclear power industry. Since the accident at the Chernobyl power station in the Ukraine, most countries with a nuclear power programme have proclaimed that there is nothing to worry about, that their power stations are absolutely safe. In America the authorities claim that nothing similar could happen in the United States since western safety standards and reactor design are superior to those used in Russia. In West Germany official government statements have said that such an accident could not occur there because its nuclear reactors as "absolutely safe". Japan, because it has almost no fossil fuel deposits of its own, is committed to increasing nuclear power generation. Energy authorities there have rejected calls even to review their nuclear programme, let alone halt operations at its 32 nuclear plants as is demanded by trade unionists and environmentalists. A Japanese official said there would be no change in plans to increase nuclear power output from 26 per cent of total energy supply to 35 per cent by 1995. Ignorance, complacency or cynicism?
And what about these comments made before the accident by various "experts" in the field?
- In June 1983, B. A. Semenov. Russian Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy and Safety at the International Atomic Energy Authority said of Chernobyl: "A serious loss-of-coolant accident is practically impossible".
- In 1975 a study by the American Atomic Energy Commission concluded that an accident serious enough to kill 70 people would only happen once in a million years of a reactor's operation.
- The US edition of Soviet Life earlier this year published a feature on Chernobyl under the headline "Total Safety" which described the idea of a core melt-down as "incredible".
Such statements cannot be the product of ignorance of the risks involved in nuclear reactors. In Russia, apart from the Chernobyl accident, there has also been a core accident at an experimental fast reactor; in America there has been the accident at Three Mile Island and a fast reactor core melt-down at the Fermi reactor; and in the UK the Windscale plant suffered a serious accident in 1957. One international study has calculated that nuclear power plants in 14 countries have experienced 151 "significant nuclear-safety incidents" since 1971.
So if nuclear accidents can and do happen, why do governments world-wide seem intent on ignoring, or down playing, the risks? The example of Russia is instructive. Russia has considerable oil and gas resources and is, in fact, an oil-exporting nation. But both oil and gas fields are in Siberia in the east of the country, whereas the main industrial centres are in the west and the area of most rapidly expanding population in the south. European Russia consumes 60 per cent of the country's total electricity and yet produces less than 20 per cent. Much of that power must therefore be brought thousands of miles and it has been estimated that the cost of power doubles for every 1.000 miles that it has to be transported. Thus, nuclear power stations which can be built where they are needed represent a solution to the problem of providing cheap energy. So the Ukraine, far from the oil and gas fields of Siberia, gets 40 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power stations, the biggest of these being at Chernobyl.
At present nuclear power provides 10 per cent of electricity used in Russia and there are plans to increase output by 400-600 per cent over the next 15 years. If, as a result of the Chernobyl accident, the nuclear programme is slowed down Russia will have to continue to pay the much higher price for bringing power from Siberia and suffer the consequent loss in exports as oil and gas are diverted for domestic consumption. Nuclear power is, therefore, important to maintaining profits in Russia: cheap energy means lower unit costs and higher profit. And this is the motivation behind nuclear power in other countries too — a motivation that is sufficiently powerful to make it worthwhile to conceal or play down the considerable, often unknown, risks involved.
The ruling class in the western capitalist countries have been swift to try to make political capital out of the Chernobyl accident, alleging the inferior quality of Russian reactors and lamenting the lack of openness on the part of the Russian government. But on both issues their hypocrisy is breath-taking. The British reaction was typical. It was argued that a similar accident could not happen in Britain because the Chernobyl reactor was of a unique Russian design which is not found in this country and had no form of secondary containment (a strong, enclosing structure around the entire reactor and heat exchanger that would contain the radioactivity should there be any leak) and so would not meet British safety standards. It was further claimed that Russian reactors were built dangerously close to densely populated areas and. to reinforce the message. Peter Walker, the Energy Secretary, said that there had never been in the UK any "emergencies involving significant radiological hazards to the public at any civil nuclear installation".
These statements are a mixture of misinformation. half-truths and lies. Although it is true that the Chernobyl reactor was one of a unique Russian design (a graphite moderated boiling water system) it is also true that it is a "hybrid" comprising features commonly found in reactors throughout the world, including Britain. In fact the most serious nuclear accident so far in this country that at Windscale in 1957 — involved a graphite-uranium core which caught fire releasing large amounts of radioactive iodine over a wide area. Graphite moderators were also used in the early British and French Magnox reactors. Many of Britain's older nuclear power stations, including the Magnox reactors and the advanced gas-cooled reactors, do not have secondary containment. In the early years of the nuclear power programme it was boldly argued that reactors would not be built unless they were totally safe and so secondary containment was both unnecessary and would undermine public confidence since they implied the possibility of a leak. (Of course, secondary containment also increased the cost of the power station).
Britain is far more densely populated than Russia. A nuclear accident here is likely therefore to have far worse effects than a similar accident in Russia. At the time of the Windscale accident the Atomic Energy Authority said that the release of radioactivity presented no "hazard to the public". Nevertheless the sale of milk was banned within a radius of 200 square miles of the reactor. In fact the full extent of the Windscale accident was not made known until 1983. In that year the National Radiation Protection Board said that the accident may have caused up to 260 cases of thyroid cancer, 13 of which had proved fatal. So much for British freedom of information.
But why is it that the Russian authorities did not provide information which might help the Russian people avoid the effects of radiation? Like the West, the Russians have constantly told people that nuclear power stations are completely safe. Despite this there has been considerable opposition to the building of new reactors, especially in the Balkan republics — opposition which the Russians. given their commitment to nuclear power for economic reasons, would be unhappy to encourage by giving out information about a serious nuclear accident. The accident is, anyway, likely to have adverse economic effects on trade with East European countries, which the Russians will be anxious to minimise. As the Guardian (30 April 1986) reported:
The whole thrust of the latest Comecon joint nuclear plans is that there should be more and bigger plants to save fuel and to facilitate the building of bigger and better manufacturing centres If these plans are now delayed, as seems highly likely, a whole series of capital investment projects will also have been thrown into disarray.Many East European reactors are built along similar lines to the one at Chernobyl using Russian-built components. That market for Russian goods will be under threat unless the Russians can minimise the seriousness of the accident.
Most people don’t understand very much about nuclear power so when they read about the release into the atmosphere of radioactive substances like iodine and caesium (already detected in countries far away from the site of the Chernobyl accident), or about the possible release of strontium. ruthenium and plutonium-241, it really doesn’t mean very much to them. They have to rely on experts, who claim to have information and knowledge, to translate this into things that they do understand. And they do understand when Friends of the Earth in Sweden say that the total number of cancers from the radioactive cloud, if it travels over highly-populated areas, may exceed 10,000 over the next 20 years; that it is estimated that in order to de contaminate the affected area around the site of the Chernobyl reactor it will be necessary to remove at least four inches of top soil. They do under stand that in addition to the two people killed (according to the Russian figures) and the many more who were undoubtedly hurt as a direct result of the accident, numerous others face long-term health risks, and Russian workers — scientists and engineers — had to risk their lives by entering the highly radioactive Chernobyl site in order to make the three other reactors safe. (There are four reactors on the same site because this reduces costs although it compounds the risk). And they also understand that those people who are responsible for making decisions about whether to build nuclear reactors, and about safety standards, are not coming clean about the risks that are posed to ordinary workers throughout the world. People like Lord Marshall, Chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board, with a vested interest in expanding the nuclear power programme, who said, in the week of the Chernobyl accident, that the radiation inside the exclusion zone was "no worse than smoking a couple of cigarettes a year" (Observer, 4 May 1986). Do you trust a man with such a complacent attitude to human health and safety to be making decisions about nuclear power on your behalf? Do you trust the social system which needs people like that to spread verbal smokescreens over situations of such peril to the human race?