Chernobyl, Fukushima, and preparedness for a “next one”

Over a single April day in 1986, a little-known place called Chernobyl became infamous. Twenty-five years later, a similar fate befell Japan's Fukushima Prefecture. In the end, the Fukushima disaster was better contained than Chernobyl, but if an emergency hits another nuclear power facility, it may well do so in an unanticipated way. Are nations adequately prepared for an unpredictable "next one?" Below, authors from Austria, Cameroon, and India assess improvements over the last 30 years in preparedness for a nuclear power disaster—and debate how preparedness should be further improved.

Round 1

Great progress since Chernobyl—and the distance still to go

A disaster is an event of unanticipated severity and scale that causes damage too great to allow quick recovery. It poses dangers that do not remain within a manageable range. Otherwise, a disaster would not be a disaster—only a crisis.

The key to handling disasters, therefore, is to anticipate—and prepare for—the worst. Fortunately, as science and technology have advanced, so too has human capacity to anticipate and respond to disasters. Nature continues to produce extreme environmental events. But today, the hazardous activities in which human beings engage are generally designed with emergency preparedness and response in mind.

Producing nuclear power is one such activity, but in more than 60 years of operations at power reactors—16,000 cumulative reactor-years—the nuclear industry has witnessed only two disasters, at Chernobyl and Fukushima. And only Chernobyl resulted in fatalities—30 very soon after the event and about two dozen more in the years since, with additional deaths projected in the long term. What these figures indicate is that the nuclear industry attaches due importance to the safety of reactor operations. It well recognizes that even two disasters in six decades, only one of them involving fatalities, have been sufficient to create negative public perceptions of nuclear power!

There are three primary ways to address this issue. First, the safety of reactor operations can continually be improved. Second, better emergency preparedness and response can be instituted. Third, improvements on both fronts can be communicated to the public. Both the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters rendered important lessons along all three of these dimensions—but the focus here is improved disaster preparedness since the 1980s.

The improvement has been substantive. Chernobyl led to the creation of an international legal framework for emergency preparedness and response, as well as a set of related regulatory processes and official guidelines. Implementing all this is a question of national responsibility. But implementation proceeds in accordance with international benchmarks that were largely created after Chernobyl, and in some cases revised after Fukushima.

Steps taken. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been the lead agency in establishing conventions that specify guidelines for handling emergencies. After Chernobyl, the first such instrument to be adopted was the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident. Because Chernobyl had made the transboundary implications of nuclear disasters quite conspicuous, nations brought the Convention into force quickly—by the end of October 1986. The Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency was adopted simultaneously, though it did not enter into force until the next year. Both instruments placed specific obligations on states parties, and on the IAEA, to establish arrangements for nuclear or radiological emergencies. These obligations are strengthened by two later conventions—the Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. These four conventions cover quite a wide range of nuclear activities.

Over the years, the IAEA has published a series of safety standards meant to enhance national arrangements for safety, preparedness, and response at nuclear power plants. The agency also works to ensure the compatibility of national, bilateral, regional, and international mechanisms and procedures for disaster response. After Fukushima, the agency's General Safety Requirements were revised to incorporate lessons newly learned. This led to publication of "Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency," a document recommending standards for preparedness and response. Nations can enforce these standards by adopting legislation and regulations; assigning responsibilities to nuclear operators and national and local officials; and establishing regulatory frameworks through which effective implementation can be verified.

But the IAEA is by no means the only agency involved in improving disaster preparedness. In 1986, the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiological and Nuclear Emergencies was created in recognition that cooperation and coordination among agencies is extremely important. Eighteen organizations are part of this mechanism, and they are as diverse as the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, the World Health Organization, and the International Civil Aviation Organization. The Committee has created a Joint Radiation Emergency Management Plan to harmonize international standards for emergency preparedness and response. The Plan allows for a common understanding of participating organizations' roles, responsibilities, and capabilities—and also provides an overall concept of the group's operations so that quick, coordinated responses are possible.

Steps still to take. After Fukushima, nearly all countries operating nuclear reactors undertook reviews of their emergency response systems—and the Japanese government and the IAEA produced reports highlighting several ways in which emergency preparedness could be improved. One such recommendation is that, during an emergency, public officials must have quick access to informed scientific opinion and expert judgment so they can make good decisions in extreme time pressure. Certain errors committed during the Fukushima emergency—regarding the timing and extent of evacuations, for example—might have been avoided if officials had had better advice.

A second recommendation is that officials be given the resources to correctly classify the severity of an incident as it occurs. That way, the correct set of standard operating procedures can be activated at the earliest possible moment. Classifying an incident as less severe than it really is—or more—can squander precious time and credibility. Third, the provision of accurate information at all levels is crucial. If operators, for example, attempt to conceal an accident (or its extent) from national or international authorities, an appropriate response is only delayed. At Chernobyl, for example, only limited evacuations from the affected area were ordered—and only after 36 hours had passed. To be sure, Chernobyl's immediate fatalities remained very limited compared to many non-nuclear emergencies. But the disaster was felt across the physical, socioeconomic, political, and psychological spectrum of countries in the region. These effects could have been reduced if accurate information had been available. Finally, emergency capabilities must be coordinated across the local, state, and national levels. But this is only possible if operators conduct periodic drills involving all relevant entities and if deficiencies are conscientiously rectified.

Choosing, preparing. Energy is the essence of human progress. For countries seeking an energy-rich future, nuclear power is one of many options. Nations will make their own sovereign choices, based on their own calculations, about nuclear power. Countries that opt for nuclear power well understand that a great deal of legal and regulatory infrastructure is required if they are to operate nuclear sectors safely and sustainably. One element of this infrastructure is emergency preparedness and response. It is incumbent on nations to continually improve their capacity for disaster management. Fortunately, international mechanisms for, and national efforts at, disaster preparedness are making this task progressively easier.


Learning from nuclear accidents, expanding nuclear energy

Nuclear energy accounts for about 11 percent of world electricity production, and this share is likely to increase over the medium term as the world seeks to limit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thereby mitigate climate change. But since the Fukushima accident, global expansion of nuclear energy has slowed—just as it did after the Chernobyl disaster. Accidents at power reactors, even when their severity is limited, can create in the public an unjustified phobia about nuclear energy.

The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 was caused by factors including a flawed reactor design, insufficient training of plant operators, and a lack of nuclear safety culture. About 30 people died soon after the explosion as a consequence of acute radiation syndrome, and the death toll has since risen to 56 or so. Any premature death is regrettable. But Chernobyl mobilized scientists and engineers to improve electronic control of reactor operations. It led to improved instruction in nuclear safety culture. The probability of another accident similar to Chernobyl now appears very low.

The world's second major nuclear accident, 25 years after the first, was the Fukushima disaster of five years ago. In this case the cause was external events—a high-magnitude earthquake and tsunami. No deaths related to radiation were reported, though quite a few deaths can be attributed to anxiety or other psychological effects. Of the 160,000 people who were displaced from the accident area, about 60,000 have returned to their homes and others are returning slowly.

The global nuclear community is still learning the lessons of Fukushima. But it is already using those lessons to prevent future accidents. When new power plants are designed, severe external hazards are now being taken into account. Substitutes are being developed for components that failed at Fukushima. Mobile systems have been developed to provide electricity or cooling water to power plants when their own systems fail. Many countries have subjected their nuclear power installations to stress tests, and many have reviewed their legal and safety frameworks. Under the leadership of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), international safety standards have been strengthened. Networks of regulators, operators, and vendors have been established at the international, regional, and sub-regional levels to enhance the global nuclear safety regime. International conferences have been organized with a focus on understanding the origins and harmful effects of the Fukushima accident. As a result, nuclear power plants around the world are receiving improved guidance for strengthening their safety measures.

So both the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents have provided lessons that are improving nuclear safety. And the international nuclear community is making consistent, effective efforts to avert loss of human life (even though it is impossible to exclude that possibility in the event of a severe nuclear accident). Yet space exists for further improvement. International cooperation among nuclear power plant operators should be enhanced. More nations should participate in the international peer reviews of nuclear installations that the IAEA's board of governors recommended in a 2011 action plan. These missions are a good step toward enhancing safety culture and winning public acceptance of nuclear energy—and toward improving emergency preparedness and response.

Global harmonization. Indeed, where preparedness and response for nuclear and radiological accidents are concerned, the IAEA has already developed specific safety standards. But there is still a need to harmonize approaches to emergency preparedness and response around the world. Each country, whether it uses nuclear power or not, should continuously develop and maintain its response capabilities at all levels, taking into account the harm that nuclear or radiological accidents can cause to individuals and the environment in other countries, whether neighboring or far away.

In many developing countries, such as my own Cameroon, the greatest cause for concern is emergencies involving radioactive sources. These emergencies could include sabotage at nuclear installations, theft or loss of radioactive sources, and accidents during the transport of radioactive materials. But then, whenever nuclear or radiological accidents occur, standards for emergency preparedness are reviewed to ensure that any such events in the future remain controlled. The international nuclear community is quite aware of the need to continuously improve the management of nuclear accidents and mitigate negative consequences for human beings and the environment.

The IAEA, to improve member states' preparedness for nuclear and radiological accidents, recently launched a new web-based tool, the Emergency Preparedness and Response Information Management System—a "self-assessment tool" that Elena Buglova, head of the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre, believes "will make an important contribution to preparedness levels of member states." It is also worth recalling that the agency, according to the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency, has specific responsibilities "with regard to assisting states in developing their own preparedness arrangements for nuclear and radiological emergencies."

It is also vital for effective emergency response that technical information about nuclear power plants and accidents be shared widely. Operators, regulators, vendors—all the stakeholders in nuclear industries—can only make appropriate contributions to the management of accidents if they have access to the same information. Effective emergency preparedness requires a global outlook.

Change of course. Nuclear energy deserves a high-priority position in the global strategy for establishing sustainable energy systems. According to the International Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency, global nuclear capacity must double by 2050, and nuclear energy must supply 17 percent of overall electricity production, if global warming is to be limited to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Many politicians today promise to exclude nuclear energy from their countries' electricity mix. But it's almost certain that they'll change course very soon—embracing nuclear power because it is among the most reliable and sustainable options for electricity supply.


Nuclear emergencies and the masters of improvisation

April 26 marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and those old enough to remember the event can recall the explosion, the evacuation, and the dread. But they rarely remember an immense milestone in the response to the disaster: the completion in November 1986 of a concrete encasement of Chernobyl's reactor number four. Workers drawn from all across the Soviet Union built this "sarcophagus" under extreme radiological conditions, on the ruins of the destroyed reactor. They used unimaginable amounts of concrete—and a great deal of imagination. This concrete mausoleum has held up, with some assistance, for 30 years now. (A larger containment structure that will fit over the existing sarcophagus is now being built.)

Over the years, as the ranks of those who responded to Chernobyl have thinned, new generations of nuclear professionals have been trained to prevent another disaster. Their training has emphasized "safety culture." This, along with "inherently safe designs," was going to guarantee an accident-free nuclear future. For a while, it seemed as if the world was on the verge of forgetting forever what responding to a nuclear emergency really required. Then, in March 2011, multiple reactors at one of the world's largest nuclear power plants melted down as a consequence of a massive earthquake, a tsunami, and a sustained power outage.

As a student of the Soviet nuclear power program and the Chernobyl disaster, it was painful for me to watch the blame game that played out immediately after Fukushima. Almost to the letter, the Chernobyl "script" was followed. First, the plant's operators were blamed. Then the reactor design was at fault. Finally, it was the turn of the national nuclear regulatory structure. "Culture," of course, received a great deal of blame as well.

But while Chernobyl could ultimately be dismissed as a Soviet-made disaster that "could never happen here"—wherever "here" happened to be—Fukushima has not allowed such steadfast denial. Indeed, Fukushima has proved the death knell for a nuclear safety philosophy that focused exclusively on preventing accidents. Disaster preparedness and response were given scant attention in the years between Chernobyl and Fukushima, but now they have been added to the vocabulary of the world's nuclear industries. Curiously, however, this shift is only partial. Disaster prevention retains the greatest emphasis; preparedness is sometimes treated adequately; but resources (and imagination) devoted to actual response strategies remain limited.

The "lessons learned" from Fukushima—and new reports on these lessons continue to be published—focus predominantly on technical and legal fixes, organizational reform, and liability concerns. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission responded to Fukushima by overhauling its rules and guidelines for accident prevention, preparedness, and response. The US nuclear industry, meanwhile, implemented "FLEX," a program designed to provide nuclear reactors in distress with hardware such as extra pumps and generators, both on site and stored at regional centers. In Europe, power reactors were subjected to "stress tests" after Fukushima, and these tests sparked conversation among nations hosting nuclear power reactors about harmonizing, if only loosely, national regulations concerning natural (and other) hazards to nuclear power plants.

Steps such as these go in the right direction. But emphasizing prevention and preparedness over response ignores a simple fact: Nuclear disasters tend to exceed people's worst expectations. There is a good reason that the nuclear industry refers to disasters as "beyond design-basis accidents"—only a limited number of scenarios can be anticipated and prepared for. Disasters, therefore, require the development of creative, skill-based, and team-based response strategies (along with strenuous efforts to avoid disasters entirely).

Training for emergency responders in general tends to emphasize flexibility and imagination, with a premium placed on performing quick assessments and triage in unprecedented situations. But in nuclear emergency response training, the situation is different. The nuclear industry seems deeply troubled by using human imagination to address situations that go "beyond the checklist." In Europe and the United States, at least—I can't speak for the entire world—the nuclear industry seems hung up on the idea of control. There is a plan for every conceivable situation. Should plans fail, there are more plans. Staff are trained to follow procedures and execute instructions. If they don't, that's always bad.

Such an approach, as documented by the anthropologist Constance Perin, fundamentally fails to acknowledge the messiness of operating imperfect, real-world technologies (and all technologies are imperfect). Worse yet, it incapacitates an aspect of creativity that, though it's more often associated with jazz, can be tremendously important in nuclear emergencies: improvisation. In music, improvisation calls to mind wild, random, and perhaps solitary acts. But if emphasized in training for nuclear emergencies, the metaphor of improvisation can help prepare responders to pursue skill-based, team-oriented, and highly organized actions under challenging conditions.

In any disaster, improvisation occurs. It happened at Chernobyl, even if creative imagination was thoroughly expunged from all written reports. Improvisation happened at Fukushima, and in fact a lot more improvisation will be necessary if the Fukushima disaster is ever to "end." It is tempting to remember creative action only when it fails. Making this mistake locks in a mindset of control and controllability. Any such mindset will be exploded—yet again—by the next nuclear emergency.

Round 2

Partnering with the public for better preparedness

Several readers commenting on this roundtable have expressed a negative view of nuclear power and seem to favor abolishing it. The three roundtable authors, meanwhile—even as they have highlighted the challenges involved in preparedness for a nuclear disaster—either argue in favor of nuclear power or decline to argue against it. What accounts for this difference of perspective between the lay reader and the so-called nuclear expert?

The readers' attitudes aren't unusual—many in the general public oppose nuclear power because they fear that an accident will exceed the scenarios envisioned during a reactor's design and also exceed human ability to handle the consequences. The three roundtable authors, meanwhile, are well aware of the challenges—technical, legal, regulatory, psychological, and so forth—that disaster preparedness and response entail. But even as the authors understand the need to enhance preparedness and response capabilities in every possible way, they see no need to eliminate nuclear energy.

Rather, they emphasize the importance of learning from past disasters, as I did in Round One. Or they advocate global harmonization of emergency procedures, as Augustin Simo has done. Or, like Sonja Schmid, they argue that staff at nuclear plants should have greater freedom to improvise and exercise creativity during an emergency.

I suspect that one factor accounting for the differences between lay perspectives and expert perspectives is simply knowledge. Many well-informed experts, of course, are among nuclear power's opponents. But it's also the case that many laypeople who oppose nuclear power are informed very poorly.

Part of the blame for this rests with nuclear establishments and, to borrow Simo's phrase, with the "secrecy inherent in nuclear establishments." The tendency toward secrecy can cause nuclear operators to treat nuclear technology as something beyond the ordinary person's capacity to understand. Many in the nuclear establishment have never made an effort to explain, for example, the phenomenon of radioactivity (a lot of which exists harmlessly in nature). They've never bothered—in some cases out of laziness or a lack of concern—to describe the improved safety features and enhanced operator training that minimize the risk of nuclear disasters. The public's unease with nuclear power, its feelings of distrust, are an outcome of inadequate communication.

At one time, human beings feared fire—until they learned how, with adequate precautions, fire could safely be harnessed to do enormous good. So nuclear establishments must shed their habits of secrecy and actually encourage the public to learn about nuclear safety features and preparedness for accidents. In that way, the public might overcome its fear of the unknown.

Not in a vacuum. Another mechanism that can foster confidence in disaster preparedness is a nation's nuclear regulatory system. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, a great deal of attention was devoted to regulatory capture—a situation in which a regulatory body is dominated by the industry that it's meant to regulate—so countries operating nuclear reactors endeavored to make their regulatory organizations and processes as stringent and independent as possible. To be sure, faith in regulatory bodies is vital for proper reactor operations and emergency response systems. But faith in regulators doesn't exist in a vacuum—any more than regulators themselves exist in a vacuum. Public faith in regulation mirrors a society's overall perceptions about public integrity, honesty, and safety culture. In a country with a lax safety culture in transportation, for example, people's attitudes toward nuclear operations can easily be negative too.

But there's a silver lining—nuclear power is to some extent self-regulating. Nuclear technology is quite unforgiving, and a local nuclear incident can quickly become a global sensation. This compels the nuclear industry worldwide to maintain high standards, subject itself to peer reviews and audits, and even try to harmonize operating procedures.

There can never be a perfect strategy for disaster prevention and preparedness; this must be conceded. So for nations that choose to include nuclear energy in their basket of electricity generation technologies, the correct approach is to make disaster prevention and preparedness as perfect as they can be. And crucially, preparedness and response arrangements must be communicated to the public in a transparent fashion.

Nuclear energy faces challenges that won't disappear just because the public becomes a partner is preparedness and response strategies. But involving the public must be part of the solution.


Amid disaster, scientific consensus and reliable data

It's no great surprise that estimates of Chernobyl's fatalities differ widely. As my roundtable colleague Sonja Schmid noted earlier in Round Two, the World Health Organization reported in 2005 that Chernobyl fatalities would approach 4,000. The next year, Greenpeace estimated that nearly 100,000 fatal cancers would result from the disaster. These numbers are far apart, but calculating radiological risk is always problematic. Where low doses of radiation are concerned, uncertainties are very large. Likewise for risks to specific population groups. Assessment approaches, meanwhile, vary from one organization to another. The correct death toll from Chernobyl probably won't be decided for a long time, if ever. The death toll surrounding Fukushima is an open question too. Better statistical evidence is needed to support projected death tolls stemming from nuclear disasters—there has been a lack of quantitative studies that can validate estimated death totals in exposed populations to which certain risk factors are applied.

Unfortunately, lack of consensus about estimating casualties undermines public trust in nuclear power. Indeed, if the nuclear scientific community adopted a uniform approach to estimating disaster-related casualties, public unease with nuclear power might become more manageable. Ideally, the scientific community would reach consensus and, all at once, begin implementing that new consensus. Such an approach would likely lead to greater acceptance of nuclear power than is engendered by the current diversity of scientific opinion.

In any event, scientific studies indicate that the psychological harm caused by a nuclear accident may be more damaging than radiation effects are. Schmid has noted that stress associated with evacuation amounts to a legitimate form of trauma; so does simple fear. For any disaster preparedness and response system, knowing how to manage these psychological effects presents a serious challenge.

First priorities. Meanwhile, Schmid writes that disaster preparedness and response "are in large part technical," but not "just technical." She is correct, of course. But in any disaster, the technical aspects of preparedness and response must be first priorities. From the moment an incident begins, data must be gathered that can help define the scope of the emergency and provide guidance for actions by first responders. Continuous, real-time monitoring must be conducted to assist in assessing the incident's immediate consequences and its potential impacts on people and the environment. And reliable data must underpin any public declaration by officials or experts. Officials must, as Manpreet Sethi writes, "have quick access to informed scientific opinion and expert judgment so they can make good decisions in extreme time pressure."

But data, and the interpretation of data, can easily become controversial—particularly when local officials enter the picture. For example, beginning very early in the Fukushima disaster, Japan's Nuclear Safety Technology Center "began releasing forecasts of the diffusion of radioactive materials (plume forecasts)." But Fukushima Prefecture decided that the information provided wasn't up to date enough and never officially announced it. Disagreements of this sort can delay necessary action.

Further risk of delayed action lies in the secrecy inherent in nuclear establishments. An excessive desire to preserve secrecy can delay interaction with foreign experts and institutions. This tendency must be resisted because, during an emergency, it's absolutely crucial for the international expert community to share views and approaches in a timely way.


Chernobyl fatalities and the challenges of expert judgment

Preparedness for and response to a nuclear emergency are in large part technical, physical undertakings. They involve equipment such as pumps, generators, containment vessels, and helicopters. But they aren't just technical. Preparedness and response also involve, as my roundtable colleague Manpreet Sethi has pointed out, sophisticated legal instruments and organizational capacities. Moreover, as noted in the section for readers' comments, preparedness and response involve sophisticated regulatory and training abilities.

But no matter how many international conventions a nation has ratified, and no matter how flexible (or inflexible) its approach to beyond design-basis accidents, critical decisions during an actual emergency ultimately rest with a plant's staff—and on the staff's judgment of the emergency’s magnitude. As a disaster progresses, judgment evolves. Experts shift their views on the disaster's severity and its potential consequences. They discover entanglements between systems that had previously been thought unrelated.

All this hampers the sort of communication for which Sethi called in Round One—that is, effective communication during an emergency. Sethi, discussing the delays in communicating accurate information that accompanied both Chernobyl and Fukushima, wrote that "public officials [during an emergency] must have quick access to informed scientific opinion and expert judgment so they can make good decisions in extreme time pressure." Officials must be able, Sethi argues, to classify an accident's severity swiftly and correctly. But one problem with severe accidents is that it's typically very difficult, for officials and experts alike, to assess quickly and accurately just how bad things really are. Accurate classification may be impossible while a disaster is still unfolding—or rather, a disaster might deserve different classifications as it evolves.

The real challenge, then, may lie in communicating information that is incomplete, or imperfectly understood, and in making decisions based upon such information. Though Sethi's "informed scientific opinion and expert judgment" are absolutely critical in an emergency, they are not infallible.

Legitimate consequences. An area in which expert judgment is truly crucial—and at the same time hotly contested—concerns the medical consequences of nuclear disasters. In Round One Augustin Simo reported Chernobyl's death toll so far as about 56. Sethi provided a similar figure (though she acknowledged that deaths may go higher in the long term). Both authors presented these figures as evidence that the nuclear industry is safe enough. Implicit in their arguments were comparisons to fatalities associated with more mundane activities—for example, about 90 people in the United States die every day in car, truck, and motorcycle crashes. It's always tempting to make comparisons when high-risk technologies such as nuclear energy are examined. But comparisons of this kind suffer from a twofold problem.

First, a nuclear disaster's death toll will typically be a hugely controversial subject. A 2005 report on Chernobyl fatalities by the World Health Organization and several other agencies predicted that "up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure." But a 2006 Greenpeace report challenged these numbers, estimating that the disaster would turn out to cause 250,000 cancers, nearly 100,000 of them fatal. What these vastly diverging estimates demonstrate is how incredibly tricky it is to attribute delayed deaths to specific causes. Indeed, the international community has accepted only a single direct causal connection between Chernobyl and cancer—involving thyroid cancer in children. Even this limited acceptance, argues the University of Pittsburgh's Olga Kuchinskaya in her brave book The Politics of Invisibility, is only due to the efforts of Belarusian scientists, who are increasingly marginalized in their own country.

Second, deaths are not the only consequences of disasters, whether nuclear or otherwise. The trauma of experiencing an emergency, the stress of undergoing (temporary) evacuation, or even Simo's "phobia about nuclear energy" (whether or not the phobia is justified)—all these can cause physiological and mental health effects no less debilitating than cancer. That is, fatalities are not the only legitimate negative consequence of nuclear accidents. Even cancers in remission can be more consequential than they sound—"curing" thyroid cancer often subjects patients to surgical removal of the thyroid and a life-long regimen of substitution therapy.

As the uncertainty over Chernobyl's death toll illustrates, "scientific opinion" is not always unanimous, and neither is "expert judgment." Scientific expertise is not immune to controversy. And expert judgment changes over time.


Round 3

Nuclear risk calculation and faith in human ingenuity

Just as I sat down to write my final essay in this roundtable, news came in that an accident involving a bus and two cars on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, a busy corridor between large Indian cities, had resulted in the death of 17 people. Since 2014, according to the June 6 edition of The Times of India, 285 deaths have been recorded on this road. And yet the expressway has not been closed.

In 2013, 1.6 million people in China and 1.4 million in India died of conditions caused by air pollution. The pollution that killed them is created by the burning of wood, dung, and crop residues for cooking and heating; by burning coal for electricity generation; and by vehicular exhaust. Air quality guidelines established by the World Health Organization prescribe daily mean particulate concentrations of no more than 25 micrograms per cubic meter. But in the month of February, Beijing and New Delhi typically experience particulate concentrations of 300 micrograms per cubic meter, or even more. Yet no one outlaws burning fuel for cooking and heating, or using vehicles for transportation.

I don't present these figures to trivialize the dangers of nuclear power generation—rather, to put things in perspective. Nuclear technology comes with a set of dangers. So does crossing a busy street in a modernizing city anywhere in Asia. People everywhere go about their daily routines—taking risks, taking precautions, staying prepared.

Where one sits. Why, my roundtable colleague Steven Starr asks, should "reactors … be allowed to continue producing mass quantities of nuclear poison" that, "in human terms," will last forever? Starr presents this as the correct question to ask about nuclear power. But for me, the correct question is why—when nuclear power can provide emission-free electricity generation—I should have to breathe poisonous emissions from dirty energy sources today.

This brings me to Sonja Schmid's point about people's differing risk perceptions. I believe that where one stands depends on where one sits. I come from a region where round-the-clock, every-day electricity is still a dream. So my risk calculations factor in hospitals that aren't assured of day-and-night electricity—where life support systems might not function properly and people might die as a result. I perceive this as a greater risk than nuclear accidents, which should not happen in the first place if nuclear systems are operated using optimal safety procedures.

I do agree with Starr that waste management is a major unresolved issue in nuclear power, but research and development into waste disposal continue in many parts of the world. Indeed, India announced an important step forward at the International Atomic Energy Agency's general conference in September 2014—namely, the commissioning of an actinide separation demonstration facility at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Tarapur. The facility, according to Ratan Kumar Sinha, then–chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, separates "minor actinides from … high-level waste," a process that might reduce the life of radioactive waste "from around 1,000 years to about 300 years." Separation also reduces the volume of high-level waste that requires long-term storage. Moreover, "technology has been developed and demonstrated for the removal of highly radioactive [cesium]-137 and its conversion to [a form] usable for blood irradiator[s] and similar low–dose rate radiation applications." I maintain faith in human ingenuity and its ability to identify solutions to problems that today may seem intractable.

In Round Two, I argued that nuclear establishments should partner with the public to build greater trust in nuclear power. To be sure, as Sonja Schmid has written, establishing trust does not provide nuclear establishments "carte blanche to make decisions on the public's behalf." I'll go further and say that partnerships between nuclear establishments and the public are a two-way street: When an aware, demanding public keeps the nuclear industry on its toes, nuclear safety and emergency preparedness improve.


Winning acceptance for nuclear power: Strategies must vary

I plead guilty to my roundtable colleague Steven Starr's charge of seeing no need to eliminate nuclear power. Starr has written that Sonja Schmid, Manpreet Sethi, and I "may suggest new policies or technological fixes for the nuclear industry, but will not call for the industry's abolition." Quite right—I don't call for abolition of an industry that can drastically improve electricity supply in developing countries, where many millions are doomed to poverty if the energy needed for industrialization remains unavailable.

Nations that embark on nuclear power programs generally have strong reasons for doing so—including a lack of good alternatives for meeting electricity needs. Reasons can also include confidence in the safety of existing nuclear reactors and confidence that yet safer reactors will be available soon. In most cases, when publics understand the underlying reasons for pursuing nuclear power, they will support policy makers' decisions. That's why it's so important for the public to understand ongoing efforts toward improving reactor safety; the safety progress achieved since Chernobyl; and the steps taken since Fukushima to avoid a similar disaster in the future.

But nations display widely diverging levels of both education and technological advancement, so strategies for communicating with the public about nuclear power will differ from country to country. In nations with well-established nuclear sectors, for example, the nuclear industry provides jobs that people aren't eager to lose. Employees, if there are enough of them, can explain the technology's benefits to others within their social environments and make a big difference in public acceptance. In less developed countries, the situation may be quite different. A certain level of education is required to understand nuclear technology and safety features, so public communication in countries with less educated populations—this would include many nations on my home continent of Africa—should focus on local energy resources and their inability to provide sufficient electricity for industrialization. If the public realizes that industrialization cannot move forward without nuclear energy, people will support nuclear power even though an accident could happen—in the same way that, even though plane crashes aren't completely avoidable, people travel by air because only airplanes can provide quick transportation between continents.

Nations that pursue nuclear power in order to achieve development goals should share their decision making processes with other countries in similar situations. Meanwhile, nuclear regulatory bodies must be transparent in their interactions with the public. These agencies are the interface between the nuclear industry and the public. They must consistently demonstrate their independence and their capacity to regulate nuclear power appropriately.

Even if some countries pull back from nuclear power, as Germany is doing, the number of nations operating nuclear power sectors is likely to grow. So is the total number of reactors in operation. This is simply because so many countries view nuclear energy as a reliable, necessary component of their future electricity mix.


Experts, laypeople, and nuance in disaster preparedness

Engineers, psychologists, and sociologists have long puzzled over differences in risk perception—especially, though not exclusively, where nuclear issues are concerned. Why do different people fear different things? Why do they so often disregard scientific calculations about probabilities and fatalities?

In Round Two, Manpreet Sethi suggested that experts tend to support nuclear energy while non-experts—that is, laypeople—tend to oppose it. Public distrust of nuclear power, Sethi argued, is often due to lack of knowledge, which itself is "an outcome of inadequate communication" by experts. This attitude represents a familiar, persistent strain in assessing controversial risk perception. But it ignores decades of social science research in which expert knowledge versus lay knowledge; the notion of trust; and the "deficit model" of science communication have been thoroughly examined.

Often, distinguishing between experts and laypeople isn't particularly helpful—unless one carefully differentiates the character, flavor, and level of expertise displayed by the people involved. A classic example involves sheep farmers in northwest England whom Brian Wynne, professor of science studies at Lancaster University, studied in the aftermath of Chernobyl. Wynne found that the sheep farmers, because of their profound knowledge of grazing behavior and due to their familiarity with the effects of previous incidents at the troubled Sellafield reprocessing plant nearby, could make more relevant and accurate predictions than the scientists who focused exclusively on the local soil's capacity to dilute radioactive contamination.

The problem of expertise, then, is a tricky one. Each person is an expert in some areas and a layperson in many others. In addition, clear-cut distinctions between laypeople and experts ignore people's ability to learn, and ample evidence demonstrates that laypeople can educate themselves effectively on issues that concern them, ranging from medical problems to nuclear energy. When nuclear experts label laypeople's objections "uninformed," they can miss valuable perspectives on potential problems in nuclear energy, as well as promising solutions.

No carte blancheBoth Sethi and Augustin Simo emphasize the importance to nuclear power of public trust. They propose that scientists and the nuclear industry work to restore trust—by educating insufficiently informed laypeople about new, advanced safety features or by presenting the public with clarified, streamlined information about the consequences of nuclear disasters. Sethi and Simo's proposals accord with what generations of increasingly professionalized risk communicators have attempted to do—namely (to paraphrase Carnegie Mellon scholar Baruch Fischhoff's summary of why so many risk communication efforts have failed), "give the public the numbers, explain what the numbers mean, and treat them nicely."

The problem with this approach is twofold. First, information about nuclear emergencies and their consequences is fundamentally uncertain. "The numbers" simply cannot be compressed into one coherent message—too many contextual and contingent factors must be considered. Second, it is a fundamental misunderstanding of public trust to assume that once trust is established, it provides carte blanche to make decisions on the public's behalf. To the contrary, trust is a dynamic relationship that entails ongoing and respectful dialogue with individuals and organizations.

Effective communication with potentially affected individuals and communities is absolutely critical for nuclear emergency preparedness and response. But established models of risk communication may be in need of thorough revision. What if a critical and perhaps even distrustful public were perceived as an asset rather than a liability? What if the nuclear industry put greater trust in laypeople's ability to learn about complex systems and to interpret uncertainties appropriately? What if both sides in this polarized debate tried to respect others' concerns instead of, out of hand, dismissing them as irrational? This much is sure: Nuclear emergency preparedness and response capabilities would benefit if the conversation surrounding them incorporated greater nuance.


Nuclear power: Asking the wrong questions

This is a discussion in which, as Manpreet Sethi has noted, all the participants "either argue in favor of nuclear power or decline to argue against it. … [T]hey see no need to eliminate nuclear energy." That is, the Bulletin has selected experts who may suggest new policies or technological fixes for the nuclear industry, but will not call for the industry's abolition.

I am a senior scientist with Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group that does call for abolition. Physicians for Social Responsibility is deeply concerned about the medical and ethical consequences of the ongoing production of enormous amounts of high-level nuclear waste. Such waste, hundreds of thousands of tons of it, sits in "cooling pools" next to nuclear power reactors; many individual pools contain more cesium-137 than was released by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests combined. These utterly lethal radionuclides will require some form of supervision for hundreds of thousands of years if they are to be prevented from entering the biosphere. Thousands of generations of human beings will have to perform the supervision.

Only one country, Finland, has begun work on a permanent repository for high-level waste, but it is not yet operational. The only permanent site for low-level waste in the United States, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, is currently closed due to mishaps including a 2014 radiation release. Hence the entire world provides no good examples of safe permanent storage.

But the problem, of course, extends beyond waste—it includes catastrophic releases of radiation, something that the nuclear industry has not managed to prevent in the first 70 years of its existence. And even Sethi admits that "[t]here can never be a perfect strategy for disaster prevention and preparedness." So there is little reason to think such releases will be prevented in the future.

When they aren't prevented, as at Chernobyl, the consequences are devastating, as study after study demonstrates.

  • The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, in a 2011 report called "Health Effects of Chernobyl," found that 25 years after the disaster, more than 90 percent of "liquidators"—the soldiers and civilians, numbering at least 740,000, who fought to contain the reactor fire and clean up afterwards—were severely ill or had become invalids.
  • According to the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, between 12,000 and 83,000 genetically damaged children will eventually be born in "affected countries of the Chernobyl region," while 30,000 to 207,000 such children will be born worldwide due to the disaster. These cases will take time to appear—only 10 percent of the overall expected damage can be seen in the first generation after exposure.
  • The "TORCH-2016" report, an independent scientific evaluation of Chernobyl's health effects based entirely upon peer-reviewed sources, finds that about 5 million people in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia live in areas still highly contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster (with more than 40 kilobecquerels of cesium-137 per square meter). These areas include 18,000 square kilometers in Belarus, 12,000 square kilometers in Ukraine, and 16,000 square kilometers in Russia. About 400 million people live in less contaminated areas (with between 4 and 40 kilobecquerels of cesium-137 per square meter).
  • The unfortunate people who must live on these contaminated lands—especially infants and children—suffer greatly from the effects of the long-lived radionuclides (primarily cesium-137) that have contaminated the forests, soils, and foodstuffs to which they are constantly exposed. In 2011, the National Ministry of Emergencies of Ukraine issued a national report entitled "Twenty-five Years after Chernobyl Accident: Safety for the Future." The report found that by 2001, no more than 10 percent of the children living in the seriously contaminated zones of Ukraine were considered healthy. Prior to the dispersal of radionuclides from the Chernobyl explosion, 90 percent had been healthy.

These are some of the consequences of a single catastrophic nuclear accident. Fukushima, meanwhile, is an example of the ongoing irradiation of the biosphere. There will be more accidents. The nuclear industry will continue to claim that such accidents pose "no significant danger to human health." The evidence indicates otherwise.

"If they can get you asking the wrong questions," Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity's Rainbow, "they don't have to worry about answers." Asking how to prepare for a nuclear disaster is asking the wrong question. It steers the conversation away from the real issue, which is why nuclear power reactors should be allowed to continue producing mass quantities of nuclear poison that must be isolated from the biosphere for more than 100,000 years—forever, in human terms. The Chernobyl disaster released only a tiny fraction of the radioactive poison that nuclear power has produced. The overwhelming majority that remains is a grave danger, and to ignore it is willful blindness.

Editor's note: This article states that Chernobyl "liquidators" (the soldiers and civilians who fought to contain the reactor fire and clean up afterwards) numbered at least 740,000; the actual number of liquidators is a matter of dispute. The article also attributes certain information to the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR); that information is in fact an extrapolation from UNSCEAR figures by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.


Topics: Nuclear Energy


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