Today marks the 30th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster – Chernobyl. In many recounts of the disaster, like Fukushima, “mindset” is often cited as an underlying root cause.
We knew, with certainty, with arrogant certainty, that we were in control of the power we were playing with. This was the day . . . we learned we were wrong. — Sergiy Parashyn, Chernobyl engineer [source].
And this mindset is seemingly similar to what has taken hold here in Plymouth. Our own nuclear plant – Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station – is located precariously close to the shoreline, in easy reach of major nor’easters and other coastal hazards. It has been downgraded to the very bottom of the performance list of our nation’s reactors after a host of equipment problems and unplanned shutdowns. It’s just one step away from mandatory shutdown, and entering into a risky time with shutdown scheduled for 2019. To make matters worse, the federal agency responsible for overseeing nuclear safety in the U.S., the NRC, recently announced budget and staff cuts. The figurative red flags – a lot of them – seem to be flying. Yet, federal regulators are unwilling to pull the plug, claiming things are safe ‘enough’ to remain operational. Entergy, the owner of Pilgrim, is focused on its financial bottom line but at the same time claims all is under control and safety is the top priority. Even many residents in the host town perceive the plant as a benefit – funding parades, school supplies, and town events.
“Performance has not been great. It’s adequate for them to continue to operate, but that doesn’t mean everything is fine.” — David Lew, Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Acting Regional Administrator describing Pilgrim. [source].
What, if anything, can we learn from Chernobyl?
According to this fantastic piece in the Miami Herald, Chernobyl’s host town of Pripyat, like Plymouth, welcomed the nuclear plant with open arms. The approximately 50,000 residents (Plymouth has 60,000) of Pripyat thought the Chernobyl plant was making their lives better and paving way for a prosperous future. They liked the manicured roadways, new apartments and hotel, and even an amusement park – the city had been growing and it was all attributed to the nuclear plant across town.
In the early morning hours on April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Plant experienced an explosion in one of its reactors and an estimated 10 tons of radioactive uranium fuel and contaminated debris exploded into the atmosphere. One report estimates that about 40% of Europe has been impacted by the nuclear fallout to some extent. Cancer death estimates range from about 4,000 to 1.5 million. The city of Pripyat was completely evacuated. People thought they were evacuating for a few days – little did they know, they would never return. The estimate today is that people may be able to inhabit Pripyat in 3,000 years.
What actually went wrong on that fateful day is still debated. What seems to be largely agreed upon is that when radiation and temperature in the reactor reached extremely high limits, operators tried to shut it down by inserting control rods into the reactor. Instead of slowing the reaction, this actually sped it up. Interesting to note is this was apparently a known design flaw – they had been warned about the flaw 3 years prior from another nuclear plant, but no action had been taken.
Pilgrim also has a known design flaw. Its reactor, a GE Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor, is the same design as those that melted down at Fukushima 5 years ago. Three GE engineers resigned because their concerns about the system were not taken seriously. Most of these reactor types were eventually equipped with a vent system, which was tested 3 times. The system failed all three tests. Now Pilgrim continues to operate with this same flawed system. Furthermore, Pilgrim’s proximity to the coastline, in reach of coastal storms, sea level rise and other hazards, makes the plant inherently unsafe. It’s been put to the test numerous times during adverse weather conditions and failed – equipment failures and unplanned shutdowns have occurred. Storms are only getting stronger and seas are only getting higher due to our changing climate. No one can control the weather, and weather and coastal conditions are getting more difficult to predict. We are seeing events happen that we never anticipated or planned for. These issues are known to regulators and Entergy, but so far, no one has heeded these warnings.
Like Pilgrim, there were apparently problems with the “safety culture” at Chernobyl. One report states, “Safety culture had not been properly instilled in nuclear power plants in the USSR prior to the Chernobyl accident. Many of its requirements seem to have existed in regulations, but these were not enforced. Many other necessary features did not exist at all. Local practices at nuclear plants, of which it may be assumed that practices at Chernobyl were typical, did not reflect a safety culture.” [source]
The problems at Chernobyl, 30 years later, are still profound. Many parts of Europe continue to deal with radioactive fallout. Cesium-137, an extremely dangerous radioactive isotope, is still found in topsoil in surrounding areas. There is an 18 square mile area that is highly contaminated surrounding the plant. Furthermore, 95% of the uranium fuel – mixed with steel, concrete and other debris – is still sitting in the melted reactor like a giant toxic blob. The “blob” cannot be removed, since radioactive dust and particles would again go airborne. There is currently a plan in place to entomb the reactor by 2018 to slow the radioactive contamination, but this is no long-term solution.
According to the Miami Herald article, a German geologist notes that 3,000 years is probably not long enough to wait before people can move back to Pripyat, and suggests that a truly safe radioactive waste storage solution would need to extend a million years into the future. We can’t reliably plan for anything thousands or even hundreds of years into the future, so how can we ever possibly develop a solution for a million-year timeframe? We, as a species, have created an area of our planet completely inhabitable forever, for all intents and purposes.
We never seem to expect man-made disasters like this, even despite all the red flags and lessons we could be learning from other accidents. “It can never happen here” and “we have everything under control” – until it does and we don’t. Chernobyl is perhaps the worst nuclear disaster known to man, that is, until the next one happens. Does the biggest one still await us? And how many red flags will we have ignored by the time that happens?