The unsensational truth about nuclear power: Does disaster loom in Zaporizhzhya?

With fights breaking out near Zaporizhzhya’s nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the spectre of an immense disaster looms. Or does it?


By Marco Visscher

IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi visits the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, in September 2022, to check safety and security. (Photo: Fredrik Dahl/IAEA)


A while back, I stumbled upon an article on the ‘worrying return’ of nuclear power. At a climate conference, it said, ‘the nuclear industry’ had dared to present its product as ‘a “safe and clean” way to generate electricity’.

It was me who wrote those words in 2000.

At that time, I wanted nothing to do with nuclear power, pointing to ‘the overwhelming evidence’ that it has ‘nothing good to bring to people and nature’. Here’s the last sentence of my piece, published in Ode, an alternative magazine in the Netherlands: ‘Now is the time to kill the nuclear industry, before it can ruin the twenty-first century.’

Slowly, my instinctive aversion to nuclear power drifted away. Over the years, I gained an appreciation for a source of low-carbon energy that, unlike wind turbines and solar panels, is not dependent on the weather or on fossil fuel-fired power plants. I learned this from leading figures in the environmental movement (such as James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, George Monbiot) and climate science (James Hansen, Tom Wigley).

However, my suspicion had not completely disappeared. After all, things could still go terribly wrong…

As recently as 2018, I was cautious about nuclear power in the final pages of my book on the energy transition. ‘Safety remains a thorny issue’, I wrote, and ‘the impact of an accident can be enormous’.

I was by no means exuberant. But when, as a speaker at symposia on Dutch climate policy, I merely suggested considering nuclear power, some people walked angrily out of the conference room. Once, someone shouted incessantly: ‘You are a liar!’

To investigate what we should do with nuclear power (and what it does with us), I started writing a book on the rise, fall and return of this scorned source of energy. Gradually, I learned that reality often clashes with perception. Indeed, much of what we think we know for sure is exactly the other way round. It became clear what the title should be: Why we need not fear nuclear power.

And then Putin invaded Ukraine. Suddenly, nuclear power plants became part of a battleground.

Oops.

When I merely suggested considering nuclear power, some people walked angrily out of the conference room. Once, someone shouted incessantly: ‘You are a liar!’

Russian soldiers stormed the long-closed nuclear power plant near Chernobyl. Soon after, weapons clashed at the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya. Ukrainians shot with anti-tank missiles, Russians with rocket launchers. Thankfully, the damage appeared to be limited.

In the summer – my book was almost finished – the fighting flared up near Zaporizhzhya. Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), which oversees peaceful use of the atom, spoke of ‘the very real risk of a nuclear disaster that could threaten public health and the environment in Ukraine and beyond’.

Who wouldn’t get a little scared?

As long as there is fighting, anything can happen. While nuclear reactors are built to withstand bombs, missiles and shells, their power grids can go down much more easily. When that happens, the reactor’s cooling can stop. If the diesel generators also fail, and the batteries are dead, and the water storage tanks are broken, and the fire brigade cannot get the emergency cooling system to work, then, over time, a meltdown can occur, as happened in Fukushima.

A meltdown? Fukushima?! Images of an immense disaster loom large. What exactly happened?

In March 2011, Japan was rocked by an earthquake, followed by an improbably severe tsunami. Waves as high as 40 metres raced over the land. Cars, houses and entire villages were washed away. Nearly 20,000 people died in this natural disaster.

At the Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima, the reactors automatically shut down, but there was a problem. The power was out, so water could not be pumped around to cool the still-hot fuel rods. A meltdown was imminent. And indeed, after a few days a meltdown had occurred in three reactors. People fled as far away as Tokyo. Get out of here!

An evacuation was under way by then. Even months later, people were being suddenly told to move. Altogether, more than 150,000 people left their homes. Only many years later, after an extremely expensive clean-up operation, did the first ones return.

If Zaporizhzhya becomes the same as Fukushima, my goodness, that means a gigantic disaster. Right?

The nuclear accident in Fukushima dealt public health a severe blow - depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms, anxiety, obesity, diabetes...

Let’s have a look at both reports coming from the world’s leading authority: UNSCEAR, the United Nations scientific committee on radiation. The nuclear accident, it is clear, dealt public health a severe blow. In 2014, the authors reported on ‘effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms’.

In the second report, in 2022, they added further effects: ‘distress and anxiety from, among other things, disruption of life, loss of homes and livelihoods, and social stigma’. The list continues. Obesity. Diabetes. High blood pressure. Liver and renal dysfunction. Problem drinking. There’s something they call ‘adverse psychological health effects among children and their mothers’.

There is also good news. In Japan, we read in the 2022 report, birth defects and cardiovascular disease have not suddenly become more common. The increase in thyroid cancer is attributed entirely to large-scale monitoring. There is no increase in leukaemia, breast cancer, or any other cancer that can be related to radiation.

Will that increase come later?

No, says UNSCEAR. In fact, the radiation dose sustained by the population is ‘low or very low’. For those who had to evacuate, it was no more than 10 millisieverts that first year. That is roughly what we receive in a CT scan of the abdomen. This is not something anyone needs to worry about.

Among the 25,000 emergency workers who helped at Fukushima’s nuclear plant after the meltdown, some exceeded the 100-millisievert limit, according to UNSCEAR. They now face an increased risk of dying from cancer in the coming decades. How much that risk increases has been calculated: at 100 millisieverts, it rises by just 0.5%; even at the highest dose of nearly 700 millisieverts, the rise is 3.5%, on top of a roughly 30 percent chance of dying of cancer.

Politicians and lawyers are still haranguing over it, but the science is clear: the number of radiation deaths resulting from Fukushima is zero.

When writing about nuclear power, most journalists suggest doom is lurking.

Zero. It is almost unimaginable. Ever since the US government foisted nuclear power on the world in the 1950s, amid terrifying atomic tests, we have had a fear of accidents. Just one mistake and… Could a building such as a nuclear power station explode like an atomic bomb? Would we then succumb to radiation, that invisible assassin?

My fellow journalists play a malign role in the perception of nuclear power. When writing about it, most of us suggest doom is lurking. In news reports from March 2011, the tsunami, with its thousands of deaths, quickly swirled into the background. Attention shifted from the natural disaster to what had to be a nuclear disaster. Anyone reading back articles from those days is gripped by the constant threat of danger. The Japanese people seem doomed.

Wait… Ah, yes, that’s it! Of course, there are no radiation deaths in Fukushima thanks to the evacuation.

Well, no. That’s actually not the case. The radiation level in the wider area was always quite harmless. People were only allowed back when the level was at most 1 millisievert higher than before. But radiation is always all around us. It comes from the soil and the cosmos. It is in our food and in building materials.

In some places the background radiation is higher than in others. The radiation level considered safe in Fukushima is well below the radiation level that countless millions of people in Finland, England, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Australia, China, India, Iran and many other countries live with every day, without adverse health effects.

Should we evacuate them, too?

As, ahem, often happens with nuclear power, it is the other way round. In Japan, people died because of the evacuation. In the disarray, ‘more than 50 hospitalized patients’ and ‘upwards of 100 elderly people’ soon died, UNSCEAR’s assessment reads. They could not cope with the chaos, or had been accidentally left in their rooms, where they dehydrated and languished.

For others, the accumulated stress became too much. Nine years after the disaster, the Japanese government set the death toll due to the evacuation and added stress at 3,711 for three provinces.

If the tsunami drew a disturbing trail of destruction in Japan, the nuclear accident drew a destructive trail of disturbance.

Fear of radiation is a greater health threat than radiation itself.

If – yes, if – nuclear power has a future, much will depend on how we respond to nuclear accidents, wherever and whenever they occur. Fukushima, then, has been a gruesome but instructive experiment.

Lesson 1: The fear of radiation is a greater health threat than radiation itself.

Lesson 2: Keep evacuation in proportion.

Over here in the Netherlands, these are two central messages in the masterclasses offered to administrators by the National Institute for Public Health and Environment (RIVM). Authors of a 2020 RIVM report on protective measures after a nuclear accident recommend better weighing of the pros and cons of evacuation. With approval, they refer to a 2017 study led by Philip Thomas, a professor at the University of Bristol, in Process Safety and Environmental Protection stating that the evacuation at Fukushima was ‘unjustified’.

Another study, also led by Thomas, concluded that the evacuation of Fukushima was ‘excessive’. In a radius of a few kilometres, an evacuation might be defensible. But after a few days, Thomas and his team argue, everyone should be allowed to return; a short evacuation has the lowest impact on people’s well-being.

Meanwhile, even the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) advises that an evacuation should preferably be limited to a week.

In an interview with The Financial Times, research leader Thomas called the Fukushima evacuation ‘a mistake’: ‘We would have recommended that nobody be evacuated.’

Nobody.

It remains to be seen whether local residents in Zaporizhzhya will be exposed to radiation if a meltdown occurs.

What happens if a meltdown occurs at the nuclear power plant near Zaporizhzhya? That is guesswork.

Nature reports that the reactor has a reinforced concrete structure called a containment building. According to the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission’s science service, the reactor also has a system to keep the molten fuel ‘on board’ in case of a meltdown.

What does that mean? It means that Zaporizhzhya has two safety measures that were not in place at Fukushima – and certainly not at Chernobyl, because such rickety reactors have long since ceased to exist.

So it remains to be seen whether local residents in Zaporizhzhya will be exposed to radiation. If radioactivity is released at all, it will probably be even less than in Fukushima. No one will ever detect any ill health effects from such a low dose of radiation.

However, one thing is certain: all hell will break loose. Politicians will overprotect their citizens. Journalists will think they are witnessing world history. Well-known opponents of nuclear power will appear in TV studios and invent the worst scenarios.

Back in 2011, Japan was unprepared for a devastating tsunami. Politicians realised that they had failed to save their citizens from the natural disaster, but they could still save them from radiation from a damaged nuclear power plant. Get out of there!

Now, in 2022, Europe has proved unprepared for Putin’s aggression. Incompetent politicians watch as men, women and children in Ukraine die in war. These politicians will no doubt seize the distraction of a damaged nuclear power plant far away to show themselves taking decisive action.

‘Nuclear disaster is imminent’, ‘nuclear catastrophe is imminent’. That’s the kind of news that sticks.

In September – my book really needed to go to print now – the IAEA released a report on the latest inspections at Zaporizhzhya, which now no longer supplies the grid. In the spotlight of international attention, top executive Grossi spoke weightily: ‘Something very, very catastrophic could take place.’

One newspaper headlined that a ‘nuclear disaster is imminent’, another that a ‘nuclear catastrophe is imminent’. That’s the kind of news that sticks.

The report itself, meanwhile, said that all safety systems were working as usual. Actually, the damage was quite minimal, which is rather telling. It tells us that the truth about nuclear power is so shockingly unsensational that it is rarely noticed.


Marco Visscher is a Netherlands-based journalist, and author of several books on energy and environment. He’s involved with RePlanet as its editor-in-chief. This article appeared first in de Volkskrant.