HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ is a scary reminder that there are constant nuclear-safety violations
If you haven’t seen HBO’s “Chernobyl” mini-series yet, you absolutely should.
While the TV show has its fair share of inaccuracies, it still superbly retells a tragic tale of what happens when political and ideological interests overshadow public safety.
As someone who lives in an ex-communist country, this mentality is rather familiar to me. Bureaucracy rules supreme, yet that very same bureaucracy is unable to grasp the technicalities and the gravity of problems at hand. So, when such an inept and indoctrinated machinery gets to control an asset as volatile as a nuclear power plant, catastrophe is imminent.
Chernobyl was a catastrophe that claimed thousands of lives — the numbers wary widely from just 4,000 to 27,000, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, to Greenpeace’s estimate that between 93,000 and 200,000 people died as a result of the disaster. Some studies even say there were over a million cancer-related deaths.
While death-toll methodologies differ, one thing is certain: The explosion, which released 400 times more radioactive material into the Earth’s atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was caused by a technical mishap, but also by human error, which is something that can’t be totally avoided.
But that was years ago in the USSR, one might argue. What about in the U.S.? We know it never had a Chernobyl-like crisis, but has it ever come close to one?
Between 2001 and 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported more than 150 incidents of nuclear plants not performing within acceptable safety guidelines. According to a survey of energy accidents from 2010, there have been at least 56 accidents at nuclear reactors in the U.S., resulting in loss of human life and/or more than $50,000 of property damage. These accidents included meltdowns, fires and coolant-related problems.
They were nothing to scoff at. Many of them might have had the potential to turn into something catastrophic, but none were as serious as the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the one at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in 2002.
The Three Mile Island accident occurred because of a cooling malfunction, which caused a part of the core to melt. This resulted in a radiation leak and counts as the most significant accident for any U.S. commercial nuclear power plant. While the crisis was subdued in a timely manner, and the radiation released into the environment wasn’t significant, it was a close call: In a worst-case scenario, the nuclear fuel would have melted and burned through the vessel and the reactor basement right into the soil. The result would have been a steam explosion spewing vast amounts of radiation.
So it comes as no surprise that on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale, the incident was rated a five — an “accident with wider consequences.” The total cost of the cleanup was $1 billion. Even though it looks like a technical malfunction led to the Three Mile Island incident, in truth, the accident was caused by a human factor: Plant operators failed to recognize the severity of the situation because of inadequate training and a lack of familiarity with the control-room indicators in the power plant’s user interface (UI).
The Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station incident happened in March 2002, when maintenance workers discovered that corrosion had eaten away at the reactor vessel head. Although no accident occurred, FirstEnergy, the licensee of Davis-Besse, had to pay the largest fine in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s history — $5 million for violations that led to corrosion. An additional $28 million in fines was paid under a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. As can be seen from the NRC’s aftermath report, this accident resulted from a combination of technical and organizational problems.
And let’s not forget the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists claims that the Department of Defense has 4,000 warheads stockpiled, with many destined to be retired.
So far, there have been 32 incidents (known as “broken arrows”) involving these weapons of mass destruction, but one is particularly interesting: The Damascus Titan missile explosion in 1980. The accident happened in rural Arkansas when a liquid fuel explosion occurred inside a silo that stored a U.S. Air Force LGM-25C Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile loaded with a nine-megaton W-53 nuclear warhead.
The accident was caused by human error. A worker who performed regular maintenance at a height inside the missile silo mishandled a wrench, which fell 65 feet from his elevated position, damaging the side of the rocket. It was truly a freak accident: The wrench only weighed three pounds, but the acceleration and the angle at which it hit the rocket caused it to do more damage than usual.
The wrench also did its own freak maneuver: It fell in a very specific way, hitting the rocket exactly on the spot where Titan II’s first stage fuel reserve tank was located, puncturing it. Leaked fuel formed an explosive mixture inside the rocket, which ignited. The resulting explosion catapulted the warhead, which detached from the missile and landed 100 feet from the launch complex entry gate, but thankfully, didn’t explode. If it had, a force equal to three times that of all the bombs deployed in World War II, combined with those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would have been unleashed upon the unwitting residents of Arkansas.
But there were casualties: As a result of the explosion and inhalation of toxic-fuel vapors, one person died and 20 were injured.
In addition to the threat of nuclear catastrophe, this accident shares several more traits with Chernobyl: the coverup, lies and incompetency of those in charge. In a Daily Beast article, Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist famous for his research of the event, focused not only on the accident, but also on Lloyd Leavitt, a top general in the Strategic Air Command hundreds of miles away.
Very much like Anatoly Dyatlov from the HBO mini-series, he issued a series of orders based on a lack of understanding of the problem, which needlessly worsened the situation. Leavitt wasn’t punished in any way for his actions, while the surviving soldiers who risked their lives to avert the disaster “were stigmatized and demonized, and they will carry the weight of what happened with them for the rest of their lives,” according to Schlosser.
Furthermore, the Air Force covered up the accident, refusing to admit even to Vice President Walter Mondale that the destroyed missile was armed with a live nuclear warhead. “It’s true that the American nuclear arsenal was aging, but it was better to blame these guys than to admit we had a weapons system that was obsolete and problematic,” wrote Schlosser. That conclusion is in sync with a similar USSR rationale that led to the Chernobyl coverup: We won’t show weakness, even if it means loss of life and danger to the public.
But that’s not all. In May 2014, the U.S. Air Force admitted to another “mishap.” This time, three men were stripped of their nuclear certification after damaging a nuclear missile during a routine troubleshooting session. The Daily Beast adds that this basic information was released “only after the Associated Press filed more than a year’s worth of legal challenges in support of a Freedom of Information Act request.”
Despite the chance of a nuclear meltdown being quite high, the risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is declining. Lessons are learned from past mistakes, and technological advancements allow for even better safeguards in order to avert calamities. Things seem to be looking up. So, how high is a chance of “new Chernobyl” nowadays?
The answer may come from Spencer Wheatley and Didier Sornette at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Benjamin Sovacool at Aarhus University in Denmark. They created the most complete and up-to-date list of nuclear accidents and used this data to predict the likelihood of another nuclear cataclysm. Their answer? A 50% chance that a Chernobyl-like event (or larger) occurs in the next 27 years, and we have only 10 years until an event similar to Three Mile Island, also with the same “50-50” probability. To find out more about this research, see this excellent MIT article.
The risk, although downplayed by the nuclear lobby and exaggerated by the anti-nuclear movement, still exists and is quite real. The question is, are we willing to take it? Or even better, since our governments are taking it for us, do we have a choice?
With all this in mind, what’s your take on nuclear energy? Would you support it no matter the consequences? Or are you vehemently against it, regardless of the advantages? Please let me know it the comment section below.
Jurica Dujmovic is a MarketWatch columnist.
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