Wednesday 19 December 2018

Nicky Larkin: Nuclear fear clouds debate on fuel crisis

Despite the global panic, there has only been two major disasters in 30 years, writes Nicky Larkin

PARTICIPANTS OF INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON BATTLING CHERNOBYL AFTERMATH CHECK RADIATION LEVEL IN CHERNOBYL...Participants of the International conference on battling the Chernobyl disaster aftermath check the radiation level outside the concrete sarcophagus housing Chernobyl nuclear power plant's fourth reactor, April 21, 2001. Fifteen years ago the plant witnessed the world's worct civil nuclear disaster, when the power unit number four exploded during a test of turbine's behaviour in the event of a loss of power from the reactor. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich...I
PARTICIPANTS OF INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON BATTLING CHERNOBYL AFTERMATH CHECK RADIATION LEVEL IN CHERNOBYL...Participants of the International conference on battling the Chernobyl disaster aftermath check the radiation level outside the concrete sarcophagus housing Chernobyl nuclear power plant's fourth reactor, April 21, 2001. Fifteen years ago the plant witnessed the world's worct civil nuclear disaster, when the power unit number four exploded during a test of turbine's behaviour in the event of a loss of power from the reactor. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich...I

Nicky Larkin

LAST week saw the 27th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, an event that altered thinking on nuclear power forever. A quarter of a century later we had the Fukushima disaster in Japan, which prompted fresh nuclear panic across the globe. Protesters took the streets of Tokyo, demanding all Japanese nuclear reactors close by 2020.

The German public also took to the streets, and Angela Merkel immediately shut down eight German reactors, and pledged to close the remaining nine by 2022.

Next door in France, anti-nuclear protesters took to the Parisian streets, demanding an end to their own country's reliance on nuclear power.

However, 80 per cent of all French electricity is provided by its 58 French nuclear reactors. Yet there has never been a single disaster, and we've never heard anything about French fallout or thyroid cancer on the news. In fact, most Europeans are unaware of the near total French reliance on this supposedly dangerous mode of lighting their streets.

In the UK, 19 per cent of all power is nuclear generated. At its peak in 1997, 26 per cent of all British power was nuclear.

Are we premature with our fear of this energy source, particularly now in this crucial time when fossil fuels are rapidly depleting?

Solar panels and wind turbines are cosy and sustainable ideas, but depend on a certain environment to operate to full potential. You'd still need turf for the fire on those dark nights of an Irish winter.

But perhaps we are not being premature in our nuclear panic.

I have been to Chernobyl. I have seen the abandoned city of Pripyat, once a beacon of Soviet show-boating. I have seen first hand the devastation caused by a nuclear fallout.

Pripyat was built in 1970 to house the workers of the new Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Between the nuclear workers and their families, 50,000 people inhabited this near-utopian environment, with its acres of green space, playgrounds, swimming pools and theatres. Life was good. But it didn't last long.

Because only 16 short years after the model city of Pripyat was built, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor 4 exploded a few kilometres away. It should never have happened, and the nuclear debate would be very different today if it hadn't.

For three days after the explosion, the people of Pripyat were kept in the dark as to what was going on. They could see dark plumes of smoke and raging flames on their horizon, only kilometres away from their tower-block homes.

The Soviet militia told the locals they were merely testing out new equipment. While the rest of the world watched the disaster live on TV, the residents of Pripyat hadn't a clue.

Then finally after three days, 1,000 buses were drafted in. The residents of Pripyat were instructed to pack one small suitcase each, and told they were temporally evacuating their homes for just three days. They never returned.

Now, 27 years later, Pripyat stands empty. Nothing can ever prepare you for the overwhelming sense of emptiness when you arrive there.

Today there is a 30km radius exclusion zone around Pripyat and Chernobyl. Completely uninhabitable, you can't just wander in. The border is manned by some hardcore-looking militia lads. Each morning Yuri my driver had to produce my passport and permit papers to enter the zone. Each evening on the way out the car would be searched by the militia; it's highly illegal to bring anything out of the zone for fear of contamination.

Within the 30km exclusion zone, there are still over 1,000 workers working 14-day shifts to maintain the site. After 14 days they are required by Ukrainian law to leave the zone for 14 days' recovery. The Ukrainian government has devised some sort of glow-in-the-dark scale that dictates the maximum level of radiation a human is allowed absorb in any 24-hour period. How long you work each day is decided by how close to the reactor you work. Within the plant itself there are maintenance workers who only work 15 minutes per day – because in that time they absorb the day's legal limit in radiation.

I tried to gauge from these nihilistic workers whether they were worried about the inevitable consequences of spending so much time in such a toxic environment. Throughout the endless cigarette smoke and vodka-swigging, they didn't seem to care.

Some of them dismissed all this radiation nonsense as American propaganda; a sort of "well if you can't see it, it's not there" attitude. They argued that an area of such natural beauty could hardly be poisonous. It's difficult to depute their reasoning when you see the vast untouched green fields, the forests with wild horses roaming freely. Largely untouched by human hand for almost 30 years, it's a warped nature reserve.

But despite the Chernobyls and the Fukushimas, despite the varying policies around the world, despite the protests and the moral panic, some simple facts remain. We are fast running out of fossil fuels. And we can't make any more. But we still need to light our streets. So some tough decisions lie ahead.

But these decisions must be taken with rational thought, and not with the hysteria that generally surrounds the nuclear issue. Without taking away from the devastation both disasters caused, the fact remains there's only been two major incidents in 30 years, with a relatively small number of direct deaths. More people get killed in Syria every day.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss