ENID, Okla. — Editor’s note: This column was first published April 26, 2006.
Like so many of the forces of nature mankind has managed to harness, radiation can be either beneficial or deadly.
Radiation occurs naturally in many forms, the most familiar being sunlight.
The forces required to spark nuclear fission, the process that gives us both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, are natural but accelerated by the hand of man.
Around the world, more than 400 nuclear reactors generate 2,560 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year, about 17 percent of all electricity produced.
In the United States, 20 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from nuclear plants.
Nuclear plants don’t consume fossil fuels and don’t discharge harmful pollutants into the atmosphere.
If all the world’s nuclear plants were shut down tomorrow and replaced with plants burning fossil fuels, annual carbon emissions would increase by some two billion tons.
But when nuclear power goes wrong, the results can be catastrophic.
This is the 20th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, an explosion in a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine.
April 26, 1986, was a Saturday. Engineers were running a routine test of the Chernobyl reactor. Because of a series of mistakes and a disregard for safety procedures, the reactor reached 120 times its full power.
As a result, all the radioactive fuel disintegrated and pressure from built-up steam blew the top off the reactor, releasing radiation equal to more than 100 times the radiation produced by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
Twenty years later, the effects of the Chernobyl disaster are being felt still. The area immediately around the abandoned nuclear plant is not safe for human habitation. Crews carrying out contamination work are limited to staying in the area for only two weeks at a time.
Much of the area is a radioactive hot zone, and likely will remain so for centuries.
And Chernobyl didn’t just affect Ukraine and Belarus.
More than one-third of Great Britain still is suffering significant contamination from the Chernobyl disaster.
In northern England, the Independent newspaper reports, thyroid cancers in children have risen to 12 times normal level since Chernobyl.
At least 34 percent of Great Britain is expected to remain radioactive for centuries as a result of the accident.
Chernobyl’s human toll has been hotly debated of late.
A group of United Nations agencies released a report last fall attributing fewer than 50 deaths directly to radiation exposure at Chernobyl.
But some 4,000 of the workers hastily assigned by the old Soviet government to clean up the accident site are expected to die from radiation-related cancers and leukemia. World Health Organization recently issued a report predicting some 9,335 deaths related to Chernobyl over the next decades.
But Russian researcher Venyamin Khudolei says mortality rates are up nearly 4 percent since the disaster, meaning Chernobyl’s toll in Russia alone could prove to be 67,000. Environmental watchdog group Greenpeace estimates more than 90,000 are likely to die as a result of the explosion.
The aftermath of Chernobyl also put a chill on the business of constructing new nuclear plants.
And it also may have helped bring down a government.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in power at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, says the government’s inept handling of the aftermath of the disaster (it was three days before the Soviets confirmed what was called a “minor accident”), might have been the key factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today nuclear power is making a comeback. China plans to build 25 to 35 new reactors by 2020.
In the United States, which hasn’t seen a new nuclear plant constructed since 1978, nine utility companies have begun the licensing process that would allow between 15 and 26 new nuke plants over the next decade.
As the nuclear drumbeat begins to sound once again, it can’t drown out the echoes of Chernobyl.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.