The Climate Crisis: A Slow-Moving Chernobyl in the Making

What can we learn from the worst nuclear disaster in history?

Sean Youra
Jun 4, 2019 · 10 min read
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Photo credit: fmajor from iStockphoto.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana

A Brief History of Chernobyl

(Already know about the history of Chernobyl? Then, feel free to skip ahead to the next section.)

Anyone who diligently watched the new HBO mini-series Chernobyl (as I did) has probably felt the shock and horror of seeing how things unfolded before, during, and after this disaster occurred. Just like most educated people, I was aware of this historical event and the general details like the when, where, and how. However, there’s something that they can’t teach you in school, which is what it must have felt like to be living through the crisis. The show, dramatized as it is, does a great job at portraying exactly this for all those who were involved including the government officials, scientists, and citizens who lived in the neighboring town of Pripyat — or the “ghost town” as it is now referred to as.

April 26, 1986, marked the worst nuclear disaster in world history at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The nuclear engineers, staff, and firefighters — who would eventually try to put out the blaze created by the explosion — all suffered acute radiation sickness and 29 of them would die shortly thereafter. The workers who were sent to try to clean up the mess, approximately 600,000 of them, would also be exposed to toxic radiation levels, as were the residents living in Pripyat and other nearby towns. Over 100,000 residents in highly affected areas were forced to evacuate (eventually totaling over 300,000 that were displaced), but many of them would still go on to have several health problems of their own as well as their children, such as an increased risk for thyroid cancer. And it didn’t just affect the immediate area around Chernobyl; the winds carried radioactive elements like plutonium and cesium as far west as Europe and primarily affected regions of what are now Belarus and Ukraine. The Exclusion Zone (i.e. where public access and habitation is restricted) would eventually grow from a 30 kilometer (km) zone around Chernobyl to over 2600 square km.

What’s particularly interesting about Chernobyl, beyond its historical significance and the lasting impressions it would have on people’s perspective of nuclear power, were the events leading up to the disaster and how the Soviet government handled the crisis throughout. The Soviet Union first started working on nuclear power projects in the 1950s, but significant progress was made a decade later in developing two types of reactors: the WWER and the RMBK (the reactor type utilized at the Chernobyl plant). Nuclear energy soon became one of the primary symbols of power for the Soviet Union and a source of national pride. This is important to note as once power is established, it is not easily taken away.

The commissioning of the Chernobyl power plant was a significant technological achievement for the Soviet Union, but was not without issues including potential design flaws (which were known as early as 1979), rushed construction, and a lack of proper safety tests prior to commissioning, all of which contributed to the eventual disaster. In fact, it can be said that the Chernobyl disaster could possibly have been avoided if proper safety tests were conducted earlier on during the construction stage. After all, the safety test the control room engineers were running on the night of the disaster to ensure the reactor could be run at lower power levels should have been conducted prior to commissioning. Another key contributing factor in the disaster was poor decision-making on the part of the deputy chief-engineer, Anatoly Dyatlov, for not following the proper safety regulations and pushing the other control room engineers to continue running the test despite the power level being at a dangerously low level (for which he was later imprisoned for). To be fair, the control room engineers could have disobeyed Anatoly’s orders, but they went along with it. Most likely, they were concerned about their job security, as being a nuclear engineer in the Soviet Union was highly prestigious and came with an affluent lifestyle.

Even after the explosion occurred, Anatoly did not believe the reactor was destroyed, despite seeing graphite strewn about outside the power plant. He later relayed this message to Viktor Bryukhanov, the plant manager and former director of the plant’s (rushed) construction, and to party officials all the way up the chain of command to Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, saying that the radiation levels were still within safe limits within the plant. They blindly trusted him even though all the evidence that they saw outside would indicate otherwise. The party officials did not want to cause mass panic and so they kept this information to themselves. Thus, no warning was given to the residents of Pripyat immediately after the explosion as the cloud of radioactive smoke from the explosion quickly made its way into every home.

A state commission was put together to look into the causes of the explosion and once they realized that the reactor had indeed been destroyed, they went to work to try to put out the fire and contain the spread of radioactive material. Still, no evacuation of the residents took place, despite the desperate warnings of Soviet scientists, such as Valery Legasov, that they should. Unfortunately for the residents of Pripyat and nearby towns, the scientists were ignored by party officials and thought to be overly alarmist. It wasn’t until the afternoon of April 27th that evacuations began to take place after the commission recorded radioactivity levels of up to 600 milliroentgens per hour near the Chernobyl plant. In those 36 hours after the explosion, the Soviet people were none the wiser and continued about their day having weddings, eating ice cream, and playing soccer while being exposed to extreme levels of radiation.

Similarities Between Chernobyl and the Climate Crisis

History has a way of repeating itself. Sometimes, the patterns between one earlier event and another aren’t recognized until the latter event has already started to unfold. As a result, we may not learn the lessons of history until it’s already too late. So, is there anything that can be learned from Chernobyl that should inform how we respond to the climate crisis we are now in that can help us avoid total catastrophe?

At first glance, Chernobyl and the climate crisis may seem totally unrelated to one another. Indeed, the causes of both are entirely different as well as the general circumstances, but similarities aren’t too difficult to find if we again focus on the events leading up until the present day and how certain individuals and companies have responded as public awareness of climate change has increased over time.

One can first look to when we began to use fossil fuels as a primary energy source. The First Industrial Revolution, starting in the mid-1700s, marked an important turning point in terms of energy usage, in which coal began to replace wood as an energy source with oil and natural gas soon to follow. These fossil fuels would go on to power the many innovations that would come about during the Industrial Revolution, which brought huge increases in productivity and raised the standard of living throughout the developed world with populations rising as a result. Indeed, the developed nations of the world are largely considered “developed” thanks in part to their development of fossil fuel infrastructure during this period, and virtually all these nations would go on to become economic powerhouses. Naturally, fossil fuels became a source of power and national pride for these developed nations as a result of the great benefits that came from their usage, much like nuclear energy development was a source of power and pride for the Soviets.

Fossil fuel infrastructure development and usage would continue to accelerate over the next 200 years largely unabated. As the graph below shows, energy consumption in the U.S. skyrocketed in the mid-to-late 1800s and has only recently begun to level off.

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History of Energy Consumption in the United States (1776–2012). Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (July 2013)

Even once fossil fuel companies like Exxon became aware of the links between fossil fuel use and climate change in the 1970s and their own scientists warned them of the potential impacts on the environment, they did not disseminate this information to the public nor did they take any actions to mitigate these potential impacts besides protecting their own infrastructure, such as raising the height of their offshore oil rigs to protect them from sea level rise. The fossil fuel companies acted much like the Soviet government did when they were constructing the RMBK reactors that they knew had potential design flaws, yet kept that information secret and continued on in the name of progress and profits.

Just like the radioactive particles that traveled across the Soviet Union into Europe that would eventually claim over 4,000 lives (with some estimates closer to 90,000), air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels is estimated to kill 4.2 million people every year. The radioactivity that exists within the Exclusion Zone that prevents humans from living there is not so unlike the increasingly inhospitable regions in Africa and the Middle East that could become uninhabitable by 2050 or the loss of island nations all due to climate change-related effects.

When the public (here in the U.S.) finally became aware of the risks of climate change and its link to fossil fuels, thanks in part to the testimony of James Hansen in 1988 in front of a Senate committee, Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Amoco, and other fossil fuel companies began their massive misinformation campaigns to question the science and downplay potential effects of climate change¹. Much like the residents of Pripyat, the American public (and much of the rest of the world) did not realize the true effects of climate change for some time to the detriment of all organisms and the environment. And just like the Soviet government, fossil fuel companies would do everything in their power to misinform the public to ensure the continued stability and profitability of their companies.

Climate scientists, like the Soviet scientists involved in the Chernobyl investigation who wanted to warn the residents of Pripyat and evacuate them immediately after the explosion, have been trying to warn the public about the climate crisis we face for the past 30 years. In some cases, due to pressure from governments, climate scientists have had to act more conservatively in their predictions and modeling. Some scientists, such as Michael Mann, have suffered significant attacks from fossil fuel companies and think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) that are funded by fossil fuel interests to discredit their work, harass them, and even threaten them. Soviet scientists like Valery Legasov had to also deal with their fair share of intimidation, harassment, and threats from the Soviet government and the KGB when they tried to release information about the design flaws of the RMBK reactors.

Now, the governments of the developed nations of the world are much like the men in the control room of the Chernobyl plant on the morning of April 26, 1986. Those that are lower on the chain of command are just following orders and trying to maintain their positions while the rulers of these nations can be represented by Anatoly Dyatlov, the man in charge who pushed the other control room engineers to continue on with the safety test that would lead to the explosion. These rulers have become obsessed with the idea of economic growth in order to maintain the power they now wield, and even though they may be knowledgeable about the effects of climate change, they still carry on with a “business as usual” attitude that every day pushes us closer to a Chernobyl-like event on a global scale.

Lessons to Be Learned

Clearly, there are distinct similarities between Chernobyl and the climate crisis that should be telling about how we all should move forward to properly address climate change. The following lessons should be ingrained in us and we must constantly remind ourselves of them — or else risk severe consequences in the future:

  • Just because a technological innovation brings about great prosperity and growth doesn’t mean it is not without its flaws. We must carefully analyze and be critical of these innovations to avoid unintended consequences (i.e. we must take a risk-based approach).
  • The fossil fuel industry is incredibly powerful just like the Soviet government once was, but public education and awareness, along with strong government policies, can help ensure that they are held accountable for their actions and don’t subvert the will of the public.
  • We should be supportive of, and even demand, transparency in all industries. And we should reject, shame, and, in severe cases, punish anyone who would attempt to misinform the public for their own personal gains.
  • Climate scientists must be unhindered in their research to be able to explore, question, and analyze regardless of their findings. They must stand up against those who would attempt to discredit them or bury their work, and we the people must stand with them to uphold the value of scientific inquiry.
  • We cannot let a few, corrupt (or delusional) rulers chart us towards a slow-moving Chernobyl-like disaster that would result from not rapidly reducing our emissions. We are no longer in the dark on the effects of climate change and we must hold our leaders accountable if they don’t respond with aggressive climate legislation that is commensurate to the risk of the crisis.

Finally, we should remember part of Valery Legasov’s testimony, as depicted on the final episode of Chernobyl, during the trial of Viktor Bryukhanov, Nikolai Fomin, and Anatoly Dyatlov:

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then no one will recognize the truth at all.” — Valery Legasov

References:

[1] Bill McKibben. Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Henry Holt and Company, 2019.

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Sean Youra

Written by

Engineer and climate activist | Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Climate Conscious | Envisioning a brighter future emerging from solutions to the climate crisis

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Sean Youra

Written by

Engineer and climate activist | Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Climate Conscious | Envisioning a brighter future emerging from solutions to the climate crisis

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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