Chernobyl remembered

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl on April 26th 1986. Until the combined power of an earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan on March 11th, it was the world’s worst civilian nuclear catastrophe. There are key differences between the two: Chernobyl was caused by human error and technological failure, whereas the Japanese tragedy, which is still unfolding, was the result of a natural disaster on an epic scale.

But there are two major lessons to be learned from both, which hold the record of the same grim Level 7, the highest international rating for a major nuclear accident. The first concerns safety. The fact is that wherever there is a capacity for human error, there will be human error. In remarks last week during a visit to Chernobyl, the U.N. secretary-general, Ban ki-moon, put it squarely: “The unfortunate truth is that we are likely to see more such disasters.”

He did not question the long-term future of nuclear power, which to many still appears as a relatively clean successor to fossil fuels. “Yet the record requires us to ask painful questions: have we correctly calculated its risks and costs? Are we doing all we can to keep the world’s people safe?”

To mitigate the chances of future disasters, Ban called for international standards for construction, agreed guarantees of public safety, full transparency and information-sharing.

The second major lesson of both Chernobyl and Fukushima concerns transparency. Clearly authorities worry about causing mass panic in the population, both in their own countries and beyond their borders. But lack of transparency can actually contribute to increasing fear, rather than diminishing it.

At Chernobyl, the first reports of heightened radiation at the Ukrainian plant came from abroad, and it took the state-run Soviet news media two days to confirm that an accident had taken place. The world had to wait even longer to discover that a core meltdown had taken place following an explosion and fire which took place during a systems test on the plant’s reactor number four.  But the Soviet authorities were not the only ones to fall short in full disclosure: French nuclear authorities were pilloried in the media over their claim that the radiation cloud had “not crossed the border” with France, which in 1986 obtained 70% of its electricity from nuclear power. The figure stands at close to 80% now.

In Japan, Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), the operator of the Fukushima plant, has been criticized for its lack of transparency in dealing with the emergency. Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission revealed on April 12th that it had waited weeks to publish information on elevated radiation levels from the stricken Japanese plant partly to avoid panic. “Some foreigners fled the country even when there appeared to be little risk,” said Seiji Shiroya, a commissioner with the independent government panel. “If we immediately decided to label the situation as Level 7, we could have triggered a panicked reaction.”

Is there any relevance in this to the nuclear weapons being produced or stored around the world? Yes: both of these lessons from the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters regarding safety and transparency should be applied without compromise to nuclear weapons arsenals, to help avert another accidental nuclear accident. 

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