The accident that took place 35 years ago on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power station remains one of the worst man-made disasters in human history. It still continues to offer many lessons.
At the time, I was a university student living several hundred kilometers west of Chernobyl’s location, which was located near the administrative borders of what were then the Ukrainian and Byelorussian SSRs. On the evening of April 28, a 20-second announcement was read during the main Soviet TV news program, simply stating that there was an accident and its effects are being remedied.
What the announcement did not say was that the accident started during a safety test on an RBMK-type nuclear reactor. The test was a simulation of an electrical power outage to help create a safety procedure for maintaining reactor cooling water circulation until the backup electrical generators could provide power. The announcer failed to mention that previous tests had failed and that during that fatal test on April 26, the power unexpectedly dropped to a near-zero level and that the operators proceeded with the electrical test triggering a reactor shutdown.
We had no idea that a combination of unstable conditions and reactor design flaws caused an uncontrolled nuclear reaction where a large amount of energy was suddenly released, and two explosions ruptured the reactor core and destroyed the reactor building. One was a highly destructive steam explosion from the vaporizing superheated cooling water and the other could have been a small nuclear explosion that was immediately followed by an open-air reactor core fire that released considerable airborne radioactive contamination for days.
Early May in the Soviet Union was a time of several important public holidays. That year, the weather in Ukraine was beautiful and people celebrated the early spring by being outside at mass public and private gatherings. As the situation worsened, we walked around absolutely clueless that somewhere, not far away, about 50 workers died fighting the fire and over 4,000 others died from radiation poisoning. And as we strolled through streets, city parks were filled with friends and family members who were attending picnics, while at the power plant radiation levels spiked to 40 times the estimated lethal dosage.
I later learned that radiation alarms went off at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, over 1,000 kilometers north of Chernobyl. For those of us inside the Soviet Union at the time, we hadn’t any clue about that.
The nuclear fallout from the explosions spread over what are now Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, as well as most of Europe. The authorities began evacuating and dispersing around t135,000 people from the bedroom community towns that surrounded Chernobyl. It was at this time that news and gossip started to spread. We were confronted by a crisis which we could barely understand and against which we had no defense.
The 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster is the perfect time to reflect on how to prevent, manage and recover from such accidents. It also makes us look at the responsibility of the government and the need for accurate and honest information during a time of crisis. It is also as good a time as ever to reflect on specific lessons for the further development of nuclear and other sources of energy, and what sort of effects they have on public health, the environment and quality of life.
For some time after that experience, politically I simply rejected any use of nuclear energy. In the 1990s, I joined Greenpeace and advocated against nuclear power and told the story that unfolded in front of my eyes in 1986.
I understand that in Chernobyl this was an old Soviet nuclear reactor model that exploded and was disconitnued, but there were 150 significant radiation leaks at nuclear power stations throughout the world before the Chernobyl disaster, as well as a number of serious accidents after the explosion. The closed nature and secrecy of the nuclear power industry has not changed as much as it should have. Another area of concern is the prospect of a terrorist attack on power reactors or that terrorist groups could acquire fissile material.
It later became clear to me that with many countries hugely dependent on nuclear energy that we cannot simply and immediately reject all nuclear power. We need to have responsible statesmen to be extremely careful when constructing and procuring the operating capacity of nuclear power plants. We need full transparency, public and international oversight and regulation of the nuclear power industry, along with complete emergency preparedness and response mechanisms.
It is also necessary to realize that nuclear power is not enough for energy sufficiency or climate change. Its cost-effectiveness is exaggerated, as the real costs are not even known. While we can save money and the environment by using renewable energy, these technologies are typically more expensive than traditional energy generators.
Higher upfront costs for alternative sources should not scare governments off from stimulating development and innovation. Europe has a longstanding problem in making sufficient financing available to highly innovative firms, including in the energy sector. The pandemic crisis aggravated the problem and saw much public liquidity being funneled with no return in sight.
Improving the European innovation ecosystem shall not mean only creating new grant schemes or supporting businesses with public money. There is the need to stimulate the flow of “smart” private capital in knowledge-intensive and experimental industrial and energy sources, while the role of universities in energy innovation should also improve.
More than three decades after Chernobyl, the world must have a plan and an allocated budget for transitioning to efficient, safe and renewable energy. As the demand for energy production grows, the EU, the governments of the individual European countries and the general population must invest and stimulate investments in alternative and more sustainable sources of energy, widespread conservation and energy efficiency.