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This Day in History, 1986: Chernobyl

NUCLEAR DISASTER AT CHERNOBYL:
April 26, 1986

On April 26, 1986, the world's worst nuclear power plant accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Soviet Union. Thirty-two people died and dozens more suffered radiation burns in the opening days of the crisis, but only after Swedish authorities reported the fallout did Soviet authorities reluctantly admit that an accident had occurred.

Personal note:
I've cut the long description of the event here because I have more to say about this one than usual.

The Chernobyl accident happened while I was ending my junior year in high school. At the time, the USA and USSR were still in the middle of the Cold War, and no one would have imagined that the end was not too far away. We were still frightened of the idea of nuclear war, and the two countries continues to maintain secrets from each other.

So the Chernobyl accident was scary on a number of levels. First there was the fact that the government of the USSR denied anything was wrong, although other countries were able to detect excess radiation in the atmosphere. Then there was the question of how much that radiation might be affecting the rest of us. It turned out that those of us in the USA were safe, but we had images of the radiation reaching us and no way of stopping it.

Despite this event, I remained a supporter of nuclear power as a generally safe and equitable way of providing energy to the world. And that led to an interesting discussion in our Social Studies class.

My teacher that year was Irving Steinfink, and everyone knew that he was very firmly on the liberal side of the political spectrum -- as were most of the students, including me. Mr. Steinfink had the habit of canceling the day's lesson in order to discuss current events when they were significant; we had already spent Wednesday, January 29th discussing the Challenger tragedy, for instance. So when we learned about Chernobyl, the next day it was the only topic discussed in Social Studies class. He wanted to know what we all thought of it.

Of course, most of the students in the class were of the opinion that nuclear power plants were dangerous, and that this incident was proof that we should shut them down. Now, I will admit that fission nuclear power should not be our final resort for energy; I hope we develop more solar power options in the future, and manage to tame fusion power as well. But in a world where our only other sources are things like coal and oil, which spew pollutants into the atmosphere, nuclear power is relatively clean. So I took the other side of the debate, along with only two other students in the class, one of whom was my good friend Jason Shimshi.

I pointed out that more miners died in coal mining accidents and developed black lung disease every year than people who died due to nuclear power plant accidents. One student (whose name I do remember, but I see no reason to mention her by name) made the claim that we have all these new technologies and so those people don't die any more. I boggled at that, and Mr. Steinfink, despite his own opposition to nuclear power, gently pointed out to her that she was wrong. (I always respected him for being willing to admit evidence on the other side.)

I further pointed out my "equity" argument above -- that in a way, nuclear power is fairer as it puts at risk not just the people who are getting us our energy, but also the people who are benefiting from it. Most people dismissed my argument -- one classmate had a very good response, pointing out that coal miners and the like are being paid to assume the risk. However, I still feel that this was a valid argument.

(As Isaac Asimov would say if anyone asked him if he would live next to a nuclear power plant, his answer would be no. But, he would continue, if you gave him the choice of living next to a coal mine, an oil well, or a nuclear power plant, he would take the nuclear power plant without hesitation.)

The real brilliant and prescient comment, however, came from my friend Jason Shimshi. He pointed out that the USA had to keep using nuclear power plants because we were overly dependent on foreign oil. (Remember that we had all been children during the gas crisis in the 1970s.) And, he said, if something happened in the Middle East which threatened that oil supply, we could get involved in a war that would cost American lives.

In other words, in 1986 my friend Jason accurately predicted the Gulf War of 1990-1991. I seem to be the only one who remembers this other than Jason himself. In 1990, he called me to ask if I remembered, and I said I certainly did and I'd be more than happy to be his witness.

His argument still didn't sway our classmates; in fact, the same girl who had made the claim about "new technologies" above said, and this I remember exactly, "But not everyone will die in a war." Jason and I talked about it afterwards, and decided that what she meant was that she herself was safe because she couldn't be drafted, being female, whereas we were all too conscious of our own need to register for the draft in a year or two. However, in class we didn't say anything in response; we just let it go, because there comes a point when the debate must come to an end.

I hope you've enjoyed this look back at how another major historical event had an impact on my life.

As often, you can find out more about this event at http://www.historychannel.com/tdih/tdih.jsp?category=leadstory and at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_accident

Comments

I think your cut is broken. :)
Unless you mean cut down, from where you got it from. In which case, I'm confused, and will be over here babbling at the wall.
Ah! I thought you were making the joke that my "LJ-Cut" was broken, since I didn't put one in. Nah, I just chose not to include all the details of this event because I knew my "Personal stuff" would be rather long.
I didn't put a cut in this one because most of the post is the personal stuff, and not the historical details. Do you think it needs the cut? Because if so, I can add it.
Nope. I was skimming, and got "I'll cut this" and didn't see a link. I thought I'd be all clever and point out that you didn't have the link that you obviously must have wanted to have, until I realised that you might have meant something *completely different*.

Foo.

In other news, I was shocked to learn, during my year abroad (1993-1994), how many germans remained terrified and deeply opposed to nuclear power. They remembered fearing the radiation cloud, and many believed that they, personally, had been negatively affected due to radiation. I don't know if a clearer understanding of the ecological devastation in the former DDR will have changed their minds; if I had to pick between a minute bump in my odds of dying of cancer in fifty years and miles of destroyed landscape, I'd take the former every day.
Europe was much more affected by the radiation cloud than we were here in the States; and it didn't help that the Soviet Union kept trying to deny there was a problem. In that light, I can easily understand why the Germans would be so opposed to nuclear power.

On the other hand, I seem to recall a statistic pointing out that France gets a significant percentage of its electricty from nuclear power.

And I'm with you on the choice.
That is just eerie as hell [prediction]. And sad, that the girl couldn't expand her...horizon of interest? You know.

With my father an engineer (and what I suppose you could term a religious sci-fi writer like you), despite being liberal, I've grown up on the same side of the nuclear fence.
Nuclear power is one of those issues that sparks a lot of passion in people on both sides of the debate. And it was especially more passion-evoking among a bunch of high school students who literally were growing up in the shadow of nuclear war.

But, like you, it was always one of those issues that I took the usually non-liberal side of... (And I never viewed it as a liberal vs. conservative issue. Frankly, to me, avoiding a war being fought for oil would be much more important than closing down nuclear plants.) (Then again, I did support the Gulf War, so what kind of liberal am I? :-) )
Chernobyl has made sunflowers a symbol; they are a major part of the clean-up, since they break down the radioactivity.

I have a friend in Pennsylvania (just like the license plate!) whose husband works for the NRC as a med tech. They live almost within site of what is very obviously a nuclear power plant (the Limerick PA plant). My friend figures it's the safest nuclear plant in the world, since it's practically in the shadow of the NRC.

And her husband tells an amusing story about a radioactive toilet seat (apparently made of granite). Many people forget that the world is naturally radioactive, and that is possibly responsible for the diversity of life as we know it on earth.
I've always liked reminding people of the natural radioactivity given off by the granite (limestone?) used to build Grand Central Terminal...
Yup. It could not meet the safety regs for a nuclear plant as it stands today, IIRC.

Also, aren't there enough radioactive particles in coal ash that, if it were treated as nuclear waste, would make the disposal of fission plant byproducts look easy?

Only tangentially related to your post

I made an off-hand comment about mutual assured destruction the other day to my cousin who is four years younger than I am: he quoted song lyrics at me but was completely unfamiliar with it as a policy, which kinda stunned me.

Re: Only tangentially related to your post

I'm always fascinated by what the next generation knows and doesn't know... Every year, Beloit College posts a list of what the world was like for their incoming freshman, and it's always worth a look.

Re: Only tangentially related to your post

The Looney Labs folks changed the picture on Fluxx's "War" card because kids thought that the old mushroom cloud looked like a tree.

Re: Only tangentially related to your post

Wow. Yet another marker of our generation goes poof. I thought everyone knew about mushroom clouds!
I have one big reservation about nuclear power.

Nuclear power plants are exempt from being fully liable for the damages that might be caused in an accident. The original argument for this law was that nuclear operators couldn't buy liability insurance the way regular power plant operators could, because the technology was too new for the underwriters to accurately assess the risks. That argument doesn't hold water any more. If the exemption were lifted and the operators could convince Lloyd's of London that their plants were safe, and if nuclear power was still economical after paying insurance premiums to Lloyd's, then hey, I'd be happy to have a plant open up right next door to me. But as long as the exemption is in place, I see no reason to trust the industry flacks who assure me that nuclear power is safe. Don't convince me, convince the underwriters. What? You don't want to convince the underwriters? Thanks, that tells me all I need to know.

(I also get the impression that the people who run nuclear plants in this country are too incompetent to run any kind of power generator larger than a Dutch windmill. Maybe we should just outsource our nuclear industry to the French.)
I didn't know this about nuclear power and the insurance industry. I think I'd go along with you on this one. But from my own experience, the people who run the plants in this country are competent enough that I don't worry.

There was a Simpsons episode where a German consortium bought the Springfield nuclear power plant, and were shocked to see how badly it was run...
I also get the impression that the people who run nuclear plants in this country are too incompetent to run any kind of power generator larger than a Dutch windmill.

As someone whose father was an engineer on those plants, I have to take exception to your impression. ;P
As someone whose father worked in nuclear power for 20 years -- and who is healthy as a horse, btw -- thank you for this post. :)
Tell us more! What did your father do?
He's a mechanical engineer specializing in breeder reactors. Worked on Clinch River briefly, and Indian Point. I honestly don't completely understand what he did, but it involved designing/maintaining cooling systems and whatnot. :) As a result, one of my junior high science projects was about nuclear fisson, ha ha.
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