20 years on from the Chernobyl disaster

Today marked the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. BBC News Online has put together a good selection of articles, under the banner Chernobyl: 20 years on. The Wikipedia article on the Chernobyl disaster is also well worth reading. I also went to the Dana Centre event Chernobyl and the Nuclear Debate.

At the Dana Centre, we heard Dmitriy Bobro, Head of Chernobyl Issues, speak through a live link up with the Ukraine. He spent ten minutes or so describing some of the effects of the disaster, giving a sense of how much of a profound impact on the Ukraine national psyche it must have had. A Ukrainian BBC World Service reporter asked about the estimated 500 unmapped burial sites (see 'Waste Graveyards' at the bottom of the BBC's Chernobyl's continuing hazards feature). Dmitriy agreed that this was a problem, but couldn't confirm numbers. Much of these burials took place very soon after the accident to try and quickly deal with some of the immediete risks, but it seems that no clear records were kept.

We then heard 'pro' and 'anti' nuclear arguments, in classic debating stylee. On the pro side was Johnny Ball, the former children's tv presenter and father of DJ Zoe Ball who has bizarrely taken to pro-nuclear campaigning in recent years. His argument started by disputing the level of fatalities from the Chernobyl accident, for which figures seem wildly variable. He then questioned the actual level of risk posed by potential radioactive contamination from nuclear power, mostly using a selection of odd anecdotes such as a group of people injecting themselves with plutonium and not dying, Marie Curie being exposed to tons of radiation and still not dying for ages and that we get naturally exposed to radiation, even from our own gut. He also claimed to have personally sawn through a plutonium rod in a vice with a hacksaw. He then concluded by saying how rubbish wind power is and how effecient modern nuclear power stations are. Oh and he made lots of snide remarks about 'the greens' doing bad things, although didn't quite make clear who he was referring to.

The anti-nuclear power argument came from Keith Barnham, an academic from the Imperial College university next door. He argued, with slightly less style but an almost equal amount of passion, that nuclear power was a bad idea because it's a terrorist threat, a huge safety risk, a massive burden on thousands of future generations and because it's not carbon free at all. He then went on to talk up wind and solar power, with graphs showing that if we continue to invest in these technologies at the same rate that Germany has, then they'd match the level of energy that any new nuclear power stations would be providing in ten years time. Or something.

The audience (of 40 people or so) were asked the question 'what percentage of the UK's energy should come from nuclear power', both before and after hearing the speeches, with five possible answers, the first being 0% and the rest covering fairly arbitary percentage bandings. The room was fairly evenly spread the first time round, although leaning towards the lower percentage bandings. After the speeches there was a 10% increase in the '0%' answers and a 2% increase in the '70%' answers, so opinion had polarised, with even more people being anti-. For the event facilitator, the change in opinion between before and after seemed like quite a big deal - I guess they see influencing the audience's opinions as being a key measure of success, which I'm not sure I'd quite agree with. I would also have phrased the question as 'should the UK build new nuclear power stations?' with yes/no answers, as I think this is the important question that we currently face. The people on my table interpreted the actual question put as being a bit more idealistic, asking generally how much of our energy ought to be coming from nuclear power.

Still, quibbles aside, I enjoyed the event, which was thought provoking, if only to confirm my already strongly held belief that investing in new nuclear power stations would be a bad idea.

The speakers from the Ukraine said that people in their country were lighting candles tonight to remember the tragedy and those that died whilst helping to save others, and asked for others around the world to do the same in remembrance. I didn't light a candle, but I echo the sentiment of solidarity here, and suggest that one of the strongest ways that we can remember Chernobyl is to continue to campaign against new nuclear build.