atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#6667: Well, that's a must-see, all right

I'm talking about HBO's Chernobyl.

I went into this thing expecting the usual horseshit we get from Hollywood whenever nuclear power is discussed. I mean, like The China Syndrome or Silkwood or any of the myriad movies about the development of the atomic bomb. Manhattan Project (and here's the follow-up to that post) and so forth. Approximately ONOES THE NUKEZ THEY ARE SO DANGEROUS WHAT DID THEY EXPECT WE MUST USE WINDMILLZ


At least as far as the second episode--halfway through--there has been none of that. Considering the source (HBO) that's surprising enough, but in fact the series thus far is being critical of how the USSR handled the disaster.

There were two places in the second episode where nuclear power was explained. They were a little on the "dumbed-down" side. The second one impressed me, though, as containing all the really critical information about how a fission reactor works.

I actually cannot evaluate the major threat described by the female nuclear scientist. She claims that once the core from the damaged reactor melts through the concrete containing it, it will contact water in the basement below the core, and it will cause an enormous steam explosion--one she describes in terms of "megatons".

Core material at 2,000° C falling into water--can we really describe that blast in terms of "megatons"? Somehow I doubt it, at least in terms of total energy released; but the resulting steam explosion would have destroyed the other three reactors, and the radiation released by that might have been the equivalent of that released by a nuclear detonation measured in megatons. That may have been what she meant; and that would be bad enough. Wiping out about 60,000,000 people due to radiation poisoning. Yeah. No.

...and it's made plain, repeatedly, that the commisars they're talking do don't know shit about nuclear power, so such a simplification might be necessary.

Anyway, the story is gripping in a way most TV isn't these days, and they've gotten so much else right that I'm willing to allow for it. I mean, they're not presenting this like, "Well, this is what happens when you have nuclear power!" but are telling the truth of the story, which is that they were running a test on that reactor and someone screwed up, and then the Soviets fell all over themselves trying to cover it up.

Of course we have two eps left in the miniseries. One (or both) of them may screw this particular pooch. But I'm hoping they won't; and what I've seen so far suggests that they will not.

Chernobyl was bad, and it happened for a few important reasons.

The first was the design of the reactor itself. One of the reasons Edward Teller is a personal hero of mine stems from his advocacy of safe nuclear power; and one of the rules he wrote for nuclear reactor design in the United States forbade the construction and operation of reactors like those at Chernobyl. The same way you can design a fission reactor which is inherently safe, you can design one which is inherently unsafe, and the Chernobyl reactor was one of those.

The reactor had a positive void coefficient, which was the worst problem. The void coefficient is a number that determines whether an empty space inside the core will aid or retard the fission reaction. What happens if a steam bubble forms in the reactor? If your void coefficient is positive, the steam bubble lets the reaction increase in intensity, making more heat, turning more water to steam, making the void larger--a runaway reaction that leads to the result we saw. Runaway reactions tend to go asymptotic, and in this case it blew the reactor wide open.

The reactor was graphite-moderated. The problem is, if you get graphite hot enough, it burns, and you cannot extinguish a graphite fire with water. It burns too hot and breaks up the water molecules.

Second, the reactor was housed in a shed. Which is to say, the core was a concrete box filled with graphite blocks, through which pipes passed, containing fuel, control rods, or water. The building that housed this contraption was a typical industrial building like you would find anywhere in the world: steel beam and post construction, clad with aluminum sheathing. There was absolutely no containment for the thing.

Third, it was deliberately mis-operated. They were running a test on the reactor, an experiment to see if the water pumps could be driven while the reactor was cooling down after being shut off--simulating a power failure in the power plant. What they did required that certain safety systems be deactivated, and so the fail-safes which could have (would have) prevented the disaster weren't operational.

I need to stress that, because it's usually glossed over: the safety systems were shut off and the reactor was deliberately mis-operated. They meant to do all these things; none of it was accidental. This wasn't a case of Ivan Fingerthumb throwing the wrong switch and oops! Geeze, why did the reactor blow up? All the control settings that led to the disaster were purposefully and intentionally set that way. On purpose. The outcome was not intentional, and it happened because the engineers made some other mistakes, but if the safety systems had been operational the thing would not have blown up.

The UN has attributed 57 deaths to the Chernobyl disaster. I'm sure there have been more since then (due to various kinds of cancer) but there aren't any good numbers on that. The numbers we usually get come from people who hate nuclear power and seem grossly exaggerated (ONOES A HUNDRED MILLION PEOPLE...). I haven't seen any official numbers that make sense. The problem here is that the USSR was not a clean and tidy place; protesting for pollution controls was likely to get you unpersoned and sent to a gulag, so everyone put up with filth and toxic waste being dumped willy-nilly. Separating the cancer deaths due to Chernobyl from that background is a Herculean task. "Boris here died of lung cancer, which could have been caused by his two-pack-a-day habit, or his apartment's proximity to that steel mill, or his job at the asbestos insulation factory, or the daily smog problem in his city, or inhaling a bit of radioactive dust from Chernobyl." Like that. Anti-nuke folks attribute any cancer death after 1986 in the affected area to the Chernobyl disaster, the same way anti-smoking people attribute any death of a smoker as being caused by smoking. ("He was shot 15 times in the back." "Damn that secondhand smoke!" Okay, excluding causes of death which are obviously not smoking-related.)

Chernobyl still ranks as the worst nuclear accident in history. The three worst ones are Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island--and in that order.

Three Mile Island--the safety systems were all on-line and they all worked. The release of radiation was negligible, so minimal that there was a statistically meaningless drop in cancer-related diseases in the affected region.

Fukushima--although the reactors were subjected to an earthquake beyond their design specifications, this accident happened because of an oversight with regards to the site's backup power. Everything worked as designed until the tsunami hit; when the tsunami knocked out the backup power, that's when things went pear-shaped. Yet the release of radioactivity was minimal, and no one died because of it.

Chernobyl--yeah. 57 people dead in the immediate aftermath and a massive release of radioactivity; they had to abandon an entire city. But the other reactors at the site continued to function normally and were decommissioned safely at their end-of-life.

Is nuclear power dangerous? Hell yeah. So is coal and gas and even wind and solar. So is smelting steel and aluminum. So is building skyscrapers and roads. It's an industrial process, and all industrial processes have hazards associated with them. Worldwide, coal power kills more people annually than Cheronobyl had by the end of April of 1986. (Many times more.) Look at the fatality rates for steel mills, for heavy construction. Compare them to those for the nuclear power industry. I think you'd be surprised; the people in that industry take safety very seriously.

The benefits of nuclear power far outweigh the hazard, though. There's a myriad of ways to build a nuclear reactor so that it cannot melt down. There are other processes that can be used which eliminate the high-level waste produced by conventional light water reactors. Besides the uranium fuel cycle we have an entire other fuel cycle, thorium, that we've only just scratched the surface of, and if the construction of nuclear weapons is why you hate nuclear power, then the thorium cycle is your baby. Thorium has shitty properties for bombs but makes fantastic power plant fuel--and there's more thorium in the Earth's crust than there is uranium.

Overall, as bad as Chernobyl was, there have been other industrial accidents in history, and there will be many more. The fact that this one was nuclear does not magically make it worse than the others.

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.