Ten years after Chernobyl, a bigger tragedy looms

April 26, 1996|By Gwynne Dyer

IN AUGUST 1995, James Lovelock, probably the most important scientist of his generation, said, "The danger is that what we are doing, especially if the Chinese burn all of their coal, is to put so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as to raise the possibility of a runaway warm-up to a new stable state. I don't mean kill everything off, but it will be a new stable state where global temperatures are more like an average of 25 degrees Celsius, which would make an awful lot of it desperately uncomfortable.`

Twenty years ago, Dr. Lovelock formulated the "Gaia" hypothesis: that Earth's life-friendly environment has been shaped, and is kept stable, by the living species that depend upon it. The concept was soon hijacked by greenies and New Agers who use it as a mere metaphor for Mother Earth, but the theory itself is scientific.

Dr. Lovelock maintains that the earth's plants, animals and microscopic life have vital chemical functions, controlled mainly by feedback mechanisms, that keep key factors like the salinity of the oceans and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere within livable limits. So it's not surprising that he backs nuclear power, whose chemical byproducts have low environmental impact.

It's been exactly 10 years today since the No. 4 reactor at Chernobyl exploded, starting a fire that burned in the reactor core for nine days and spewed 200 times the combined radiation from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs into the atmosphere. Stand by for a torrent of outrage about nuclear power.

Some of the outrage is justified. It is outrageous that 15 other reactors of the same unreliable type that exploded are still operating in Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania, including two on the Chernobyl site.

It is outrageous that 12 other Russian reactors of another flawed design remain in operation in Russia, Armenia, Slovakia and Bulgaria.

Ignorance reigns

But outrage rapidly slides into the ignorance about risk perception, and about the difference between local and global risks.

The local damage from the Chernobyl calamity was severe. Even now hardly anybody enters the "Zone of Alienation" around Chernobyl except the people running the remaining reactors, and they don't stay overnight.

In the large "Purple Zone" around Chernobyl, where the soil is contaminated but residents have returned, there are 2 million children. UNICEF reports a 38 percent increase in the number of children suffering malignant tumors and bone disorders.

Does this mean nuclear power poses unacceptable risks? Only if you believe that other means of generating power have no consequences for people's health. You also have to ignore the global environmental effects of burning coal, which is still nuclear power's main rival for generating electricity.

Estimates of the deaths directly caused by radioactive contamination from Chernobyl vary widely, but David Marples of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton believes there have been at least 6,000. That is close to the number of people who die each year from coal mining accidents and miners' diseases such as emphysema.

This is where risk perception distorts the equation. The miners' deaths are an annual event, and so are discounted. A single nuclear accident of comparable scale, once in the 40-year history of nuclear power generation, gets far more attention.

Moreover, miners' deaths mostly occur within relatively isolated mining communities, whereas a nuclear accident strikes at the general public. And the wider health consequences of burning megatons of coal for electricity -- namely, pumping pollutants and carcinogenics into the atmosphere -- are so hard to trace, in terms of any individual's illness, that they are simply ignored.

Fears for the future

When I drove down to the west of England to see James Lovelock recently, he was deeply pessimistic about the short-term future of humanity.

"Why do the greens all fret about nuclear power?" he asked. "It could actually be a boon in every sense of the word. The worst thing that could happen with nuclear power is that it would kill some people -- which sounds a terrible thing to say. But burning coal will kill us all, or has the danger of doing so."

Dr. Lovelock's point is that the earth shifts between three stable temperature regimes. Most of the time it is in a relatively cool, glacial regime with average global temperature around 50 degrees Farenheit. For brief periods during the inter-glacials, it warms to about 60 degrees. But it can also run away to a hot stable state, about 77 degrees, and stay there for a long time.

The worst time at which to be pumping huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is during an unstable inter-glacial period like the one we're experiencing now. Our population will grow by 80 percent in the next half century, so our power demands will soar three-fold or more. If current practice continues, we will generate most of it by burning coal.

The real tragedy of Chernobyl is that it has made people hypersensitive to the risks of nuclear power while they remain blind to the graver risks of conventional coal-fired power stations. In the past 10 years not one new nuclear power station has been ordered in North America.

If this goes on, we are in deep trouble.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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