A lesson from Chernobyl

 By Chris Dalby

HBO’s recent series, “Chernobyl”, brought the world’s foremost nuclear disaster back into the spotlight. The 1986 meltdown of the reactor in Ukraine continues to influence global energy strategies today, forcing nuclear energy providers to develop, safer, more resistant technologies while also casting widespread doubt about the use of nuclear at all…

These lessons are immensely valuable, but they are not the only ones to be culled from Chernobyl, specifically, how this infamous accident led to one of the globe’s leading examples of post-natural disaster recovery. Here are some of the leading energy and environmental advances made since the blast.

Nuclear reactors are safer than ever

 Nuclear power is at a low ebb. In the three decades prior to Chernobyl, 409 nuclear reactors were built around the world. In the three decades since, only 194 have been powered up. There have been four generations of nuclear reactors: Chernobyl and its like were Generation I; most reactors operating today are Generation II; most reactors currently being built are Generation III; and Generation IV should begin becoming available in the 2020s. Generation III reactors present significant advances with a focus on preventing meltdown, natural disasters, human error or intentional attack from terrorists. Some of these seem logical, such as structural reinforcement or increased automation of core processes. However, the ways in which these reactors operate is thought with optimal safety in mind. For example, following a shutdown for any reason, these reactors have a grace period of 72 hours where no human interaction whatsoever is needed to maintain their safety. Should an impact occur from an airplane, for example, the reactor’s design is made to avoid or greatly reduce the result of any radioactive contamination. The specifics of the Generation IV reactors are still under discussion but will present significant environmental and energy advantages. The same amount of nuclear fuel will be used to yield 100-300 times more energy than predecessors. The radioactive lifespan of its nuclear waste will be reduced from millennia to a few centuries. Those nuclear power plants could also consume a fraction of their own nuclear waste to produce electricity as part of a nuclear fuel cycle.

Model of the Toshiba ABWR, which became the first operational Generation III reactor in 1996 (na0905, flickr)

Nuclear is becoming environmentally friendly

Germany has vowed to close all nuclear power plants by 2022; Japan and Italy have already done so. Such decisions are understandable in the wake of further calamities such as Fukushima in Japan. Yet this turn away from nuclear risks sideline some of the world’s most exciting energy technology advances. Numerous climate and energy scientists state that nuclear power is a cost-effective and accessible tool in the fight against climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists, not traditionally advocates for nuclear power, warned that if nuclear plants closed, natural gas stations were likely to replace them. They estimate this would cause a rise in carbon emissions of 6%. While the components needed to make nuclear fuel come from polluting extractive industries such as mining, this situation is changing. The energy yield of nuclear fuel is increasing exponentially, and while no permanent containment solutions for highly radioactive nuclear waste have been found, the advances of nuclear fuel cycles are also cause for optimism. Finally, the average capacity factors (the amount of time plants can run at full power) for wind and solar remains low, requiring the use of other means of energy generation. In 2016, wind farms in the US were delivering power 34.5% of the time. For solar, this dropped to 25.1%. In contrast, nuclear power plants were generating power 92.3% of the time.

Model for environmental recovery

Now 32 years after the nuclear meltdown, the area around Chernobyl is not the barren wasteland many believe it to be. It has become a thriving ecosphere with improving wildlife diversity, and is now reputed as an ideal locale for study about how to help animal populations recover. While Chernobyl served to improve security measures at nuclear plants around the world and radioactive decay in the atmosphere over time, arguably it’s most widespread contribution has been for environmental recovery. Tourists visiting the site may be alarmed when setting off Geiger counters when prompted by tour guides, but animals do not share those concerns. Wolves, lynxes, wild horses and more now populate the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This ecosphere has survived against the odds. Numerous trees were felled and buried for being overly radioactive. Soviet soldiers were sent in to shoot all dogs in the area, an event poignantly shown in the HBO show. But much debate remains as to the real impact the leaks had on the local wildlife. Some scientists point to thriving animal populations, benefiting from the lack of a human presence to bounce back, something which is important at a time of mass extinction. “Our everyday habitation of an area—agriculture, forestry—they’ve damaged wildlife more than the world’s worst nuclear accident” Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth, told The Guardian. Other studies show that measuring the mutations shown by animals in the area has not thoroughly been researched. A census of small mammals found similar numbers both inside and outside the exclusion zone but with one important marker: there were no statistically significant variances in radioactivity between the populations. This data is now being studied to see how it could help plan for future human settlements in areas with radioactive fallout. With governments around the world fighting to create more naturally protected areas, the lessons from Chernobyl will guide energy and environmental policy for years to come.

READ MORE: Rethinking nuclear by Mike Scott

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.