Unlearned lessons from Chernobyl

NTV Japan

Publish date: April 26, 2011

Written by: Alexander Nikitin

Translated by: Charles Digges

For over a month the whole world has followed the nuclear nightmare in Japan. The Japanese disaster has furnished apparent proof of how little was really learned from the accident at Chernobyl.

After the Chernobyl accident many Russian nuclear experts expressed concern that the nuclear industry did not seem to do anything to develop safer nuclear power plants. In the months after the Chernobyl accident, a number of renowned scientists from the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Russia admitted that the reactors in use within the nuclear industry were very dangerous. There was, therefore, a broad consensus in the nuclear scientific community on the need to develop newer, safer reactor types.

Chernobyl should have delivered a powerful lesson to the world. In light of the nuclear disaster in Japan, it seems that meanwhile these lessons have already been forgotten. With the serious situation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant hanging over us, 25 years after the Chernobyl catastrophe, there is an apparent need to brush up on the old lessons more than ever.

First and foremost, the accident at Fukushima Daiichi is yet another reminder of the necessity of reviewing the safety of current nuclear power reactors – and especially the safety of old reactors. Both at Kola Nuclear Power plant, just a few kilometres from the Norwegian border, and at Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant near St. Petersburg, a total of seven reactors continue to operate despite the fact that they have reached the end of their 30-year operation life expectancy. (It will be recalled that Fukushima Daiichi’s 40-year-old reactor No 1 wa given a 10 year operation extension two weeks before the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami despite warnings from regulators that it would not withstand such acts of God). None of the reactors at the Kola or Leningrad NPPs meet the demands of contemporary safety standards and the upgrading of these facilities will have to be very extensive. Today, therefore, there are good reasons to demand that these nuclear power plants be shut down.

Second, all the reactors currently in operation in Russia today have only the capacity to “survive” without electricity for barely 6 hours. After this, cooling systems to the reactors stop and you will be left with a similarly horrorific scenario as that which has been unfolding in Japan. In Russia’s perception, an accident similar to Fukushima is simply not at its nuclear power plants. This is a false and dangerous perception. It is important that all reactors have a security setup that ensures the supply of electricity to keep them cool should an incident occur.

A third factor related to the ongoing experiments at nuclear power plants. One is now in full swing at Kola Nuclear power plant, which is geared toward intensifying reactor operation to achieve even higher energy production. Similar experiments were carried out at Chernobyl, the results of which are well known. The economic benefit of such experiments is minimal, while the results –  if anything goes amiss –  are disastrous. Such experiments should simply be banned.

Fourth, emergency measures must be clarified in the event of an accident. Thess include clear preparedness of those who work at nuclear power plants. At Fukushima Daiichi we have witnessed a great many mistakes largely due to unprepared workers. At the same time, cleanup efforts launched after Chernobyl and ongoing Fukushima Daiichi mean that workers face suicidal decisions in order to stop further radiation leakage.  In at regimes like the Soviet Union, which take little consideration of human life, such tragic human sacrifices are a contingency plan that might work. In the non-totalitarian world, such self-sacrifice for the sake of cleanup is not somethig that the state can reasonably ask nuclear workers to be prepared for.

Fifth, the weakest link in the chai of events at Fukushima Daiichi appears to have been the facilities for storing spent nuclear fuel. Russia today stores an enoromous amount of nuclear waste at nuclear power plants like Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant. Storage containers are not protected and are therefore vulnerable to external forces even of minor character. And this despite the fact that these storage facilities contain far more radioactive material than do the reactors. Fukushia therefore shows that spent nuclear fuel storage pools pose a greater risk for large releases of radioactivity than do the reactors themselves.

A finanal lesson that should be learned from Japan is exactly what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is. The IAEA is not the watch dog it should be but e a stagnate bureaucratic structure. In order for confidence to be restored in the agency, its operations must be radically reformed.

Today, people are paying dearly for Chernobyl’s unlearned lessons. Yet we must prepare to pay even more dearly if we refuse to learn the leasons of Fukushima.

Aleksandr Nitikin in chairman of the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona.