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A Lesson from Nuclear Worst Cases

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While the world's nuclear energy powers convened in Vienna on Monday for ten days of reporting on what their countries have done to meet their obligations under the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety, we the public don't know what they are discussing. The proceedings, like most things nuclear, are secret. But surely the most attention will be on Japan's Fukushima reactors leaking and belching radioactivity in a disaster that has probably already exceeded Chernobyl in the amount of radiation released. This time at least one lesson of both of these worse case disasters must be learned. 

If it had been learned the last time the world's nuclear powers convened a meeting in Vienna against the backdrop of an ongoing nuclear disaster, Fukushima could have been prevented. Four months after Chernobyl, in August, 1986, Soviet experts met their Western counterparts for an unprecedented open meeting to discuss the disaster. Open among themselves, that is. When the doors closed for the secret discussions, it seemed that East and West emerged with a rare Cold War consensus on the need to protect their nuclear industries from their respective publics. The result was spin rather than analysis. 

In the West, that meant stressing the design differences between the Soviet-type reactor that exploded and nearly all reactors in the West. To this day, talking heads discussing Fukushima repeat like a mantra: "Chernobyl would be impossible in Western reactors" as if Fukushima isn't proving that nuclear disasters can be very different and equally bad.  Unfortunately, when Chernobyl was blamed only on the flawed reactor design back in 1986, the entire incident was deemed to hold few lessons for anyone else. 

Instead of focusing on what was different, however, if they had looked at what was exactly the same, Fukushima could have been prevented. If it is not recognized now, it will probably happen again. 

After Chernobyl's #4 reactor exploded, spewing the radiation equivalent to 20 Hiroshima bombs around the globe, it is understandable that it gets all of the attention. More instructive, but virtually unknown, is what happened at Reactor #2. When #4 exploded, it ignited many fires and the water used to extinguish them flooded the electrical systems, knocking out the power to #2's cooling system and putting the reactor in danger of meltdown. It was exactly what the tsunami did in Fukushima.   

Whether from a tsunami or fire hoses, water knocked out the power to the cooling systems at both Fukushima and Chernobyl #2, and that is because both reactors' main and back-up power systems were at ground level or below. Had the lesson of Chernobyl's Reactor #2 been learned, Fukushima would have had waterproofed back-up power located above ground -- because all current reactors of whatever design require cooling. Cooling requires electricity and electricity does not like water. Nothing as dramatic as a tsunami is needed either. Fires can break out anywhere and fires are put out with water. 

It is not clear why the loss of coolant incident at Chernobyl #2 never received any attention. Maybe the Soviet government didn't tell. Or maybe the West didn't ask. But the delegates in Vienna must take note of it now and not only to adopt critical new safety rules. In calculating the risks of nuclear energy now that Fukushima has shaken the odds, each serious incident must be counted to predict the statistical probability of future accidents. 

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Chernobyl's Reactor #2 was brought under control in two days, averting a total meltdown, and how it was done should be required reading for all nuclear plant operators. Hopefully, the brave plant workers in Japan will eventually succeed in averting an even worse disaster. But Fukushima is already too contaminated to realistically salvage, and will surely meet a fate similar to Chernobyl #4 -- entombment and encirclement with a no-man's land. 

After Chernobyl, experts predicted serious nuclear accidents happening once every 30 years. Fukushima came five years early, probably because there are many more reactors worldwide and more to come, especially in the developing world. While the corruption afflicting many such countries may not touch the safety of their nuclear industries, I have my doubts. 

Another nuclear disaster will probably happen again. Not in exactly the same way as Chernobyl or Fukushima. Each will be different. But nuclear power is not going away and the price we pay for it may yet include a few more entombed reactors surrounded by radioactive no-man's lands. Whether they are considered an acceptable price -- like coal mining deaths, oil spills and global warming appear to be for some -- will depend on how willing the nuclear powers are to pay the price. The exclusion zone around Chernobyl has become an accidental wildlife sanctuary in the absence of people. For a small island nation like Japan, that may be too high a price. 

Many lessons will emerge from Fukushima. But when the postmortems begin, I hope that the international nuclear industry doesn't repeat how it treated Chernobyl and only stress the differences at other reactors that make a repeat of that scenario impossible. As the forgotten incident at Chernobyl's #2 demonstrates, focusing on differences obscures what is the same at the Fukushima reactors and all of the 440-plus reactors in the world.   

But I hope that the experts in Vienna and the international nuclear industry learn at least one common lesson from the two worst -- and completely different -- nuclear disasters in history (thus far): Make sure that the back-up power to their cooling systems is located above ground and can't get wet.   

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Mary Mycio has been fascinated by nuclear issues since her 5th grade teacher said that her misbehaving class would die in a nuclear war because they didn't follow instructions. Her book "Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl" is available (more...)

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