Cloud hangs over nuclear energy

The Japanese disasters have raised questions as to whether nuclear technology can ever be called safe to use. EU nuclear experts are considering if the union should eventually move away from nuclear energy.

­It was a failed experiment that led to history’s biggest nuclear disaster. In April, 1986, the Chernobyl reactor exploded as a result of the wrong individuals being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

They had a very poor knowledge of the reactor’s physics,” says nuclear physicist Boris Gorbachev. “They knew the manual and what buttons to push, and that’s it. But they knew nothing of reactor physics. The personnel drove the reactor to a state in which it was out of control”.

While the authorities clearly knew who to blame for the fallout, even the Soviet Union’s top scientists were at a loss as to what to do in the days the catastrophe unfolded.

A nuclear power station is an emission-free facility. This was something unseen before – a nuclear power station with flames and smoke over it,” shares Valery Legasov, Chief of the Investigation Committee of the Chernobyl disaster.

Quarter of a century on, history seems to be repeating itself in Japan. Despite the authorities’ claims of having the situation under control, the Fukushima nuclear power plant has already seen several explosions. And that happened despite advanced safety systems which the Chernobyl reactor did not have.

If we look towards the earthquake, the reaction was completely as foreseen,” says Hamid Ait Abderrahim, Deputy Director General of the Belgian Nuclear Research Сentre. “It means the shutdown of the reactors happened as it should be happening. This is exceptional to have such an enormous tsunami that has disabled the diesel generators.”

That such a situation is unfolding in one of the world’s most technologically-advanced countries has heightened the sense of alarm internationally.

European Union nuclear experts are meeting on Tuesday in Brussels to consider whether nuclear energy should still be used by the union. “We must also raise the question of if we, in Europe, in the foreseeable future, can secure our energy needs without nuclear energy,” EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinge was cited as saying by Reuters.

Some experts say one should look into how the Japanese have been dealing with nuclear physics to get clues as to their continuing difficulties in dealing with the disaster.

The technology is decades old”, remarks Shaun Burnie, an independent nuclear energy consultant from Scotland. “The society, the government, the regulators believe that the technology can be operated safely. But there is a built in psychological complacency, that if you are operating something that is so inherently dangerous, when you go to work every day, do you keep thinking about how dangerous that technology is? That would be overtime, rather damaging psychologically. So in other words, they convinced themselves, that they’ve mastered this technology and, unfortunately, with nuclear power there’s no second chance.

The Japanese nuclear drama is certainly not the first case of man’s over-reliance on technology. It can be a dangerous friend, and, when mishandled, can strike in disastrous fashion.

We have already seen this, what you call a technogenic disaster”, reminds Christian Science Monitor Fred Wier. “You remember last year, there was a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, again you have a very competent, famous company that seems to know what it was doing but they simply hadn’t planned for a conjuncture of conditions that would create the disaster. So this is the human condition, we simply are able, it seems, to handle these technologies, but probably not ready for them.

The nightmare that the Chernobyl reactor became was eventually sealed off within a massive concrete tomb called the sarcophagus. The catastrophe provided valuable lessons in how to deal with a reactor disaster, but also stern warnings about the dangers of nuclear energy. What new lessons will be learned, and what implications they will have for nuclear technology, the world nervously waits to see.

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