Conspicuously absent from my post on the history of nuclear power, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many people in developed countries nowadays that are unaware of at least one nuclear disaster.
The three big ones that stick in everyone’s mind: The explosion of reactor number 4 at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986; the meltdown of a reactor on Three Mile Island, USA, in 1979; and the meltdown and subsequent release of nuclear material from Fukushima Daiichi, Japan, in 2011.
The Chernobyl disaster is not only remembered for its devastating impact on the nearby town of Pripyat, as well as Europe as a whole, but also for the way it was handled. The Soviet Union was notoriously reticent to give out information about the disaster, in fact, it was nuclear facilities in Scandinavia that were responsible for breaking the news that something had happened: the winds had blown the fallout far enough that detectors in Sweden and Denmark we going off. The Kremlin took many days before it would even admit something had gone wrong, and when it did, the information downplayed the extent of the disaster (1).
A similar level of information sharing was displayed by the Japanese comapny TEPCO after the Fukushima accident(2). Fukushima is an interesting case, not only is it much more recent, but it affected a part of the world that had, until then, not experienced an accident at a nuclear power plant. This disaster also had a more profound reaction in Australia, and still does. We are much closer to Japan than the Ukraine, and as such, this became an issue we needed to worry about. Add to that the freshness of the incident, and the ongoing issues with clean-up(3), and it’s no wonder that there is a strong anti-nuclear movement in Australia.
Interestingly, Three Mile Island isn’t classified at the same level as the other two I have mentioned. But perhaps because it was in the USA, it is more fixed in the Western psyche. It was also one of the first major accidents to happen, and receive wide publicity. Researchers at the time (5) started to realise the complex relationship this sort of technology has with the public sphere, and even back then, the researchers started to acknowledge the impact that particular disaster would have on the growing anti-nuclear power movement.
It is interesting to think about the impact these sort of events have on the global perception of nuclear power. (This is not even to mention the effect on local attitudes sf the many more small and less well known nuclear incidents, such as the Windscale fire in the UK). As I mentioned in the first blog post, nuclear power is incredibly safe, in fact, one paper even calculated that for the last ten years, nuclear power had been saving 70,000 lives per year. This data includes the impacts of every nuclear disaster, but even including that, when totaled up against the devastation of the fossil-fuel industry, there really is no comparison.
Part of this must just be the scale associated with the disasters.The impact act of pollution is slow–almost invisible really–while when there is a disaster, many people are affected all at once, and in a very visible way.
Another part is the secrecy a lot of these incidents are associated with, the secrecy and misinformation surrounding Chernobyl and Fukushima damaged a lot of the public trust, and probably gave many people cause to be suspicious of nuclear technology in general.
But then there is also the feeling that radiation can inspire in people. Seeing photos of the firefighter battling the blaze in Chernobyl, or the eerily empty streets of surrounding Fukushima, there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary, just a fire, or just an empty street, but you know, when you look at that photo, there is something in the air, invisible, that could do you more harm than you can understand.
In any debate on the matter of nuclear power, nuclear disasters get brought up. There is a power pathos arguement to be made, that elusive ‘what if?’. Greenpeqace uses it for their own ends regularly, and quite dierctly in the case of nuclear power:
This is the hardest thing for pro-nuclear campaigners to combat. It’s very hard to prove that nothing will ever happen again. There will more than likely be another nuclear disaster, and the main problem comes in communicating the level of risk that nuclear power comes with, and its very hard to combat an emotional reaction with statistics.
Say something controversial.