Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 03/04/22

Chernobyl x 15. When I spoke with author/activist Harvey Wasserman yesterday morning about his concern that even a  conventional war in Ukraine could have potentially apocalyptic-like consequences due to the danger radiation releases from damaged atomic plants little did I realize that his words would ring so prophetic before I even turned around our conversation for this morning’s post.

Wasserman contends that even minor disruptions, sabotage or explosions could lead to Chernobyl-sized disasters at any one of the 15 reactors now operating in the wart-torn country. Radiation releases from Chernobyl itself, he says, ultimately killed more than a million people worldwide, irradiated thousands of square miles of land and water and cost trillions in destroyed property. What’s happening now could end up being far worse.

Wasserman has fifty years experience writing and researching the dangers of nuclear power under his belt beginning with his his co-authorship of the book KILLING OUR OWN: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation in 1973 which investigated the health impact of Three Mile Island. In 1979 he helped organize the No Nukes Concerts and rallies in Madison Square Garden and Battery Park City that drew over a quarter-million people and led to a platinum record album and a documentary film. In 1994 he spoke on behalf of Greenpeace at Woodstock2.  In 1996 he addressed public conferences in Kiev, Ukraine and Kaliningrad, Russia, where he spoke of the horrific health impacts of Chernobyl. He writes regularly on environmental issues for Ecowatchsolartopia.org, freepress.org and nukefree.org, which he edits. He also hosts the Solartopia Green Power & Wellness Hour podcast.

JWK: It’s very interesting – and scary – what you’re talking about. You’re very alarmed about what could be the nuclear fallout from a war in Ukraine even if there is no exchange of nuclear weapons.

Harvey Wasserman: That’s correct. The fallout from Chernobyl killed a million people. There are 15 reactors in Ukraine, any one of which could blow up. It does not require a military attack. There are dozens of ways that a nuclear power plant can be destroyed resulting in a gargantuan release of radiation – human error, if the national grid goes down, it could lose coolant, if there’s computer problems, if the crew is spooked by local warfare. It’s all very, very fragile. This is a terrifying time. As far as I’m concerned, this is the most dangerous moment in human history since the Cuban Missile Crisis and the media is refusing to talk about this because, you know, we have 93 commercial reactors in the United States and about 400 worldwide. The 15 in Ukraine are at four different sites. The site closest to Russia has six reactors. It’s the biggest nuclear site in Europe.

These reactors are 30 years old. They’re not exactly the most advanced machines on Earth. Twelve of the 15 were built by the Soviets. They’re slightly different models – slightly more advanced than the one that blew up in Chernobyl – but nothing significant really. These are a cut below most of the reactors in the United States, let’s put it that way. Any one of them could have had a major catastrophe during peace time under normal circumstances – as was Chernobyl. So, we are on definite tenterhooks here. It’s a very, very dangerous time. Dangerous is an understatement.

Radiation from Chernobyl carpeted Ukraine and Belarus and it’s still there. I mean there are still areas that are…

JWK: You say Chernobyl overall killed a million people. That sounds a little high to me. How do you get that figure?

HW: There was a study done by three Russian scientists –  Yablokov and two others. It was published in Russia in 2007 and in the West in 2009. They compiled 5000 studies that had been done by various people. You know, a lot of scientists used Chernobyl as an opportunity to study various aspects of radiation exposure and release and, you know, all sorts of problems. So, Yablokov and these two other researchers sort of collated everything and sifted through and came to the conclusion in 2007 that 985,000 people had been killed worldwide by radiation from Chernobyl. This was already 15 years ago. Most other studies put the number far lower but this the most credible of all the studies. It’s cited in the article that I wrote in Reader Supported News and the one also at Progressive.org. I think it’s a highly credible study and the number is quite credible.

If people want to really get a sense of what happened at Chernobyl, HBO did a five-part series called Chernobyl. It runs about eight hours. The thing to do is in the morning get up and watch them straight through. It’s an incredibly powerful, extremely accurate depiction of what happened – and it’s horrifying. It’s the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen on television but it’s absolutely essential to watch.

JWK: Is Chernobyl operational now?

HW: No. There are four reactors there. Unit 4 –  which was the newest of them – blew up on April 26th, 1986. The other three reactors ran variously through around 2000 and then they were all shut. So, they’re all shut now – but there are huge quantities of radioactive waste and because the core remains somewhat active they had to spend two-billion dollars putting basically a canopy – a seplica – over the site. You can see pictures of the site. There’s this giant sort of patio that was put up because the core is still active.

Now, when the Russians attacked they took the Chernobyl site because it sits between the Belarus border and Kyiv. The reason the Russians took it is because there’s a dead zone there, an exclusion zone. There are no people in this whole area…The irony is that the Russians have been contracted by Ukraine to help run their reactors. Ukraine was switching over to Westinghouse but the Russians have been fueling and operating the 15 reactors that provide about half the power – half the electricity – for Ukraine because they’re Russian/Soviet built. Twelve of the 15 were built by the old Soviet Union and went online before the Soviet Union fell. So, 12 of these reactors are 30 years old. Horrifying.

JWK: You paint a very dire situation. So, what can we do now? How should the West react to what is going on right now when we have a war going on?

HW: It’s a very difficult question to answer because those reactors provide Ukraine with 50% of its electricity. You can’t really replace it. I mean in all prudence, all 15 of those reactors should be immediately shut but, you know, that blackens the country…All the reactors should shut but it’s gonna be a catastrophic impact on the country. So, this is why you don’t build nuclear plants. There are 400 of them worldwide. There’s 93 in the United States. Every one of them could blow at any time without provocation…but with the military situation you have to say it’s highly likely that one or more of them is going to explode. The only thing you can really do is shut them down. The country going dark is better than being carpeted with radiation which is what gonna happen if one of them blows.

JWK: In the midst of the terror of war, you’re suggesting the country go dark because it’s better than the alternative.

HW: Yeah because I think it’s virtually certain that one of those is gonna blow up. You just can’t get around it.

JWK: So, even without nuclear missiles, we’re looking at a nuclear disaster.

HW: Yes.

JWK: Potentially 15 Chernobyls?

HW: Yes – and these reactors are bigger than Chernobyl and…they’ve been operating for 30 years. Chernobyl Unit 4 – which blew up – was not operating that long. So, yes there was plenty of radiation there but these reactors in Ukraine have way more radiation in them than Chernobyl did. So, if they blow up, there’s way more fallout that’ll come from them.

JWK: Do you think Putin factored this into what he’s doing?

HW: Oh, yes. Putin can sit at a negotiating table – and of the Russians can sit at a negotiating table – and say “If you don’t do what we want we’re gonna blow up these reactors.

JWK: In a way, he can play the nuclear card without actually threatening to fire a nuclear missile.

HW: It’s worse because there’s more radiation…Blowing up one of these reactors can be done with a small (conventional) missile (but) you don’t even need it. It would be so easy for him to blow up one of these reactors. There are dozens of different ways he could do it. The amount of radiation would exceed a nuclear bomb.

JWK: So is this kind of like checkmate for him. Does Ukraine have no choice but to give up?

HW: I have no idea. I don’t know what to say. It’s an unprecedented situation in human history. I’ve been working against nuclear power since 1973. This is not a surprise. We’ve been warning against this for 50 years. This is the result.

JWK: Let’s say this happened. They blow up nuclear power plants. Russia would also be affected, right?

HW: Yeah, it would, absolutely – but, you know, does Putin care? Does he know what he’s doing? Is he sane? Is he rational? Again, this is not a surprise here. This is not hindsight talking. We’ve been dealing with this for 50 years. (We’ve been saying) don’t build nuclear plants in a tsunami zone surrounded by earthquake faults. That was Fukushima. Don’t build RBMK reactors. That was Chernobyl. Don’t open Three Mile Island. The people demonstrated against Three Mile Island before it opened. I went to Three Mile Island after the accident and I interviewed people there. I guarantee you that many, many people were killed (as a result of) Three Mile Island.

JWK: You mean from radiation?

HW: Yes – radiation (that escaped from) Three Mile Island into the local region killed people and animals.

JWK: So, going forward, if nuclear power is so dangerous, are fossil fuels a better alternative?

HW: No. They’re heating the Earth. We have to go to renewables. We have the technology. We have wind and solar. We can run the planet on wind and solar, no problem. I mean they’ll be problems but it can be done.

JWK: But do we have the technology to switch over right now?

HW: We have it. We have the capability of switching over to wind and solar.

JWK: And you say we can do this now. I mean it will take at least some time, I suppose, but you think we can switch over relatively quickly.

HW: Yes, we can.

JWK: That’s at odds with what a lot of experts day – but I just speak as a non-expert listening to the debate. I have no idea what the truth is. One concern I have is that even the so-called renewables require rare earth metals which some people say are also a disruption to the environment in that they have to be mined – and they are largely under the control of China which doesn’t exactly have the best record for either clean energy or human rights. So, what do you say about that?

HW: These are challenges. Lithium is a challenge. The Chinese power within the renewable power industry is the result of conscious decisions made in the West because of the political power of the the fossil/nuclear industries. In other words, the fossil/nuclear industries have been consciously fighting against renewable energy for a long, long time.

JWK: But you do see the environmental problems posed by mining these metals and the fact that, at least currently, China controls much the supply of them as a problem.

HW: Of course it’s a problem. In fact, Ukraine has been a big source of lithium so this (war) is disruptive of the renewable energy business but we have no choice but to push forward. The technological breakthroughs in wind and solar batteries and efficiency have been staggering. It’s one of the greatest technological revolutions in human history. If you look at the performance curves economically and technologically of wind and solar it’s spectacular. It goes straight up whereas nuclear has gone down. Nuclear has a reverse curve. The longer we (use) it the worse it gets.

There’s a pair of reactors under construction in (U.S.) Georgia which is years behind schedule and has doubled in price (to) more than 30-billion dollars…and it’s not even clear that they’re gonna open. There are two reactors in South Carolina that were abandoned after years of construction at a cost of 10-million dollars. One of the executives involved in that is in prison. Nuclear power has been the most expensive and dangerous technological failure in human history. All these reactors are gonna have to shut. No one of them can be rebuilt. We need to 100% to renewable energy as soon as possible.

JWK: Anything you’d like to add before we wrap-up?

HW: I’ll point out that after Fukushima (then German Chancellor) Angela Merkel in 2011 finally agreed with the very large anti-nuclear movement in Germany and agreed to shut the 19 reactors that were in Germany at the time. This last December 31st they shut three of their remaining six reactors. So, there are only three reactors left in Germany and there are only two in California. Between Germany and California, you have the fourth and fifth largest economies in the world and they are about to both go post-nuclear. This has to happen.

But I have to say that in all of human history – at least since the Cuban Missile Crisis – this is the most dangerous moment because of those nuclear plants. They have to be shut. We’re going to be very, very lucky to come out of this without a major catastrophe with an unprecedented release of radiation.

So, say your prayers everybody because this is really, really dangerous.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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