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Generally Recognized As True: Chernobyl wasn't as bad as most of us imagined it was

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Chernobyl wasn't as bad as most of us imagined it was

Chernobyl and Three Mile Island seem to be the benchmarks for measuring how bad the current Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor problem is, with Chernobyl being the worst-case and Three Mile Island being a best-case in popular assessment.

But, since there have been so few nuclear accidents and the meaning of the scale is therefore vague, it's worth asking how bad Chernobyl really was. Real Clear Science attempts an explanation:
It is worth putting even the UN’s low casualty figures in perspective. As the report notes, over 1,000 onsite reactor staff and emergency workers received heavy exposure to high levels of radiation on the first day of the accident, and some 200,000 workers were exposed in recovery operations from 1986-1987. But only 50 had died of cancer 20 years later.


Exposed children are more at risk from thyroid cancer, but the recovery rate – even in the Soviet Ukraine – was 99 percent. The health experts could find no evidence of increased rates of leukemia or other cancers among the affected residents.
A deficient reactor design, clear breach of operational protocol, possibly drunken operators... and this is the worst we have ever seen from nuclear.

Meanwhile, how many coal mining accidents do we have every year? How many people die protecting sources of oil? How many die from issues related to the fumes produced when we burn these things? How much carbon dioxide do we produce getting agitated and talking about carbon dioxide emissions?

That's why Seth Godin's graph that I posted yesterday has some merit.

Why can't the same people who criticize the imaginary fear of terrorist threat levels organize in the same way around the limp threat of nuclear energy? These fears come from the same place -- something that you can't see and don't understand that could attack you in ways you least expect.

And the people who say that the structural safety models of these plants are flawed and that the risks of failure are unknowable would also have to accept that the threat models that predict the consequences of such a failure are also flawed and vastly over-state the danger.

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