While Chernobyl has been by far the most serious nuclear accident in history and has probably put the brakes on nuclear power development worldwide more than any other event, this anniversary is a good time to assess how meaningful those lessons might be.
The decision to build Chernobyl was ill conceived; the design was faulty; its construction was botched (since the plant was opened without full testing of important design features); its management was flawed; and the execution of the critical tests, that were the immediate cause of the disaster, were ill advised.
The accident itself was initially denied; the blame was misplaced; show trials were held; and the guilt felt by a senior scientist was so great that it led to his suicide just two years later.
There have been exaggerated reports that have both overstated and understated the impact on the lives of people in the former Soviet Union and in Europe. After 30 years, there is some clarity on these numbers, but they remain controversial.
The poignancy of the Chernobyl event has been encapsulated in a touching collection of interviews by Belarusian writer, Svetlana Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 in recognition of her artistry in capturing these oral histories. One review of her work commented that she wrote about a “combination of disaster and mendacity.”
Today, we still struggle to unravel the origins of the disaster and the magnitude of the mendacity. The history of Chernobyl is a bizarre anomaly which offers few lessons for the future directions of nuclear energy, but much that is instructive about the need for openness and an absolute requirement for a culture of safety.
The smoldering remains of Reactor 4 are being covered with a huge airtight enclosure that we hope will protect society for at least the next 100 years. This enclosure, which is often referred to as a “sarcophagus,” is an international effort costing more than one and one-half billion euros and that is so large, it could encapsulate the soccer stadium of Paris.
But while the physical remains of reactor 4 can be shielded from view, we still confront, in plain sight, eleven similar reactors that are operating in the Russian Federation. There are several of this model that were closed since 1986, including two in Lithuania that were taken out of operation at the insistence of the European Union that would not allow the accession of Lithuania into the EU unless that were accomplished. While the eleven that are still operating have been modified to improve their safety, it is doubtful that they would pass current operating standards. We call upon Russia to work with the IAEA to carefully evaluate the status of these reactors.
Edward A. Friedman is the Professor Emeritus of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology. His undergraduate and doctorate degrees in Physics are from MIT (1957) and Columbia University (1963), respectively. He has had a long time interest in nuclear weapons issues. In recent years he has developed new courses that deal with nuclear weapons in international affairs and the threat of nuclear terrorism.
His career has included development of a computer intensive educational environment at Stevens, which in 1982, became the first college in the United States to require all students to own a computer. He played a key role in a U.S. government program to develop an indigenous college of engineering in Afghanistan, where he was director from 1970-1973. From 1988 thru 2004, he pioneered in the use of Internet resources in teaching mathematics and science in primary and secondary schools. From 2004 thru 2008, he worked with the United Nations Development Program on computer assisted medical diagnoses at rural clinics in Africa. Dr. Friedman received the national education medal from King Zaher Shah of Afghanistan and an Honorary Doctorate of Mathematics from Sofia University in Bulgaria. He was also awarded the New Jersey State Albert Einstein Medal for educational leadership.
Contact information: [email protected]