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Is another accident on the scale of Chernobyl possible? – HeraldScotland

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IT is the chillingly realistic true-life drama gripping audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Chernobyl, the HBO and Sky Atlantic hit series on the 1986 meltdown, has also got viewers thinking.

The show – which ended its five-episode run last night – has reignited a debate that has, until recently, been overshadowed by concerns on global warning.

Suddenly, says Edinburgh-based campaigner and consultant Peter Roche, people are talking about nuclear energy again, and not just as a carbon-neutral power source to help combat the climate emergency. That, he reckons, is good.

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Mr Roche has been riveted by Chernobyl, the TV show. “I am surprised how popular it is,” he said. “A whole new generation of people are learning about the hazards of nuclear accidents.”

The Soviet-era disaster hung over the world’s atomic energy sector for decades. So too did the radioactive poison it unleashed.

A fire on April 26, 1986, in Unit 4 of the Chernobyl power plant, north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, was to kill at least 31 people, including plant and rescue workers.

It released radiation in a plume that fell across Europe. Everybody in Scotland, The Herald reported in 1989, was irradiated. People who ate game, we revealed, got 10 times the average dose.

Essentially an accidental dirty bomb, Chernobyl kept belching its poison until rescuers managed to control the blaze. Eventually, the affected unit was to be encased in what was quickly dubbed a sarcophagus.

Experts disagree over how many people died as a result of Chernobyl’s radiation. One low estimate is that it caused 4,000 extra deaths.

But for campaigners like Mr Roche – back in 1986 a member of Scram, a group which united around opposition to East Lothian’s Torness nuclear power plant – it became an object lesson.

But could Scotland or the UK suffer a Chernobyl? Mr Roche fears so.

“That we don’t have this kind of reactor in the UK was always the get-out clause of the British industry,” he said. “But that does not mean we cannot have another kind of accident.”

Scotland currently has two civil nuclear plants: Torness, opened in 1988 and scheduled to keep working till 2030, well beyond its original 30-year lifespan, and Hunterston B, due to close in 2023.

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Mr Roche recently warned that Hunterston could cause a Chernobyl. He was speaking after The Ferret, a Scottish investigative journalism team, revealed operator EDF had found 350 graphite cracks. That delayed plans to restart two reactors which were undergoing maintenance.

The nuclear industry is confident it has better technology than the old Soviet system used at Chernobyl – and a tougher safety regime. Britain, it says, has been producing atomic power for 60 years and still has eight plants, including the two Scottish ones.

Scotland is not building new civil atomic energy facilities, but England and Wales are. But the UK also has disused sites, such as the early experimental reactor at Dounreay in Caithness.

The Nuclear Industry Association sees decommissioning these sites as an important business. It said: “The UK’s first generation of nuclear power stations and early research facilities have left a legacy which requires management and as a result the UK has a challenging portfolio to decommission.”

The UK also has another legacy: waste from the heydey of nuclear generation, currently stored at Sellafield in Cumbria, the former Windscale, which had its own incident in 1957. That accident, a fire, was ranked at five on an international scale of disasters.

Chernobyl was a seven, the highest. So was the 2011 Fukushima incident when an earthquake damaged a power plant in Japan.

Nuclear fall-out does not respect borders, so Scotland’s decision to slowly phase out the technology does not mean the country could not be affected by a disaster.

Watching Chernobyl, Mr Roche said he did not think UK authorities would be as “incompetent” as those in the Soviet Union. The old Communist dictatorship was only just opening up in 1986.

The show demonstrates just how difficult it was for local and national powers to handle the crisis.

But as that mystery plume of fall-out crossed Europe, even authorities in UK struggled to know what to do.

Documents revealed under the 30-year rule that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher complained that her government had given the “appearance of disarray” in her absence.

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She had been away on what was a long bank holiday weekend. A post-mortem by the No 10 policy unit concluded that it was only after the break was over that Whitehall finally gained control.

In his New York Times review, science writer Henry Fountain stressed this human factor.

“The Chernobyl disaster,” he said, “was more about lies, deceit and a rotting political system than it was about bad engineering or abysmal management and training (or, for that matter, about whether nuclear power is inherently good or bad).”

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