Chernobyl's Real Horror Show Isn't the Radiation, It's the Economics

The real reason not to invest in nuclear power isn't the risk of a meltdown but the certainty that the costs are too high.

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An abandoned house in Kazhushki, within the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. (Reuters)

Who cares about radiation? If you want to measure the real impact of Chernobyl, Fukushima, and whatever nuclear disasters are in our future, tally the cost.

On the 26th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, I was in Ukraine, in what's known as the "exclusion zone," which is the area contaminated by the explosion of the plant's fourth reactor on April 26, 1986. I was standing in the middle of what used to be a town. I was expecting something straight out of "Chernobyl Diaries," the horror film opening this week, which is set in a different part of the exclusion zone, a town called Pripyat, which is all derelict schools and eyeless doll heads peeking out from piles of rubble.

The town I was in wasn't recognizable as anything more than a grassy field, though, because in the intervening decades, the homes had decayed until the only evidence they were ever there were a handful of depressions in the earth.

Kneeling by the side of the road was a Japanese journalist who had recently evacuated his family from a somewhat more recent nuclear disaster. Across the top of his geiger counter, in large block letters, I could read, "FUKUSHIMA." Fifteen feet away, oblivious to the elevated radiation levels, was the old woman who had farmed this land for six years after the Chernobyl disaster, until the government realized she lived in a hotspot and that she'd been ingesting radioactive Caesium through the milk she harvested from her cows.

It was a little surreal.

I'd come to Chernobyl with an attitude shared by many climate-concerned Greens -- namely, that when it comes to the tradeoff between carbon emissions and the dangers of nuclear power, the existential threat of climate change trumps all concerns about the super rare, black-swan type events of nuclear meltdown, as exemplified by Chernobyl and Fukushima. (Full disclosure: my trip was paid for by Green Cross International, an organization founded by Gorbachev in part because of his personal interest in the Chernobyl disaster.)

And, if anything, my time in Chernobyl, which included long conversations with public health specialists who have studied the disaster, taught me that the direct effects of the radiation from even the world's worst nuclear disaster almost certainly aren't as bad as you'd think. Four thousand cases of relatively treatable thyroid cancer, for sure, and the rest is just guesswork, given the difficulty of differentiating the influence of radiation exposure from the already high background rates of cancer.

Here's the thing they don't tell you, though, and it doesn't hit you until you're standing in an empty field in the heart of Ukraine -- "the breadbasket of Europe" -- looking around at what could be some of the most productive farmland on a planet desperate for all the calories it can get: The economic cost of Chernobyl is incalculably huge.

The land around much of Chernobyl will be measurably contaminated for many decades hence, and in some cases, effectively forever. It doesn't matter that the level of contamination in many areas will be negligible from a public health perspective. Here's the question to answer: Would you live there? Or if you were a business, would you invest there? And if you were raising crops, do you really think someone is going to buy grain "made in Chernobyl"?

If you want to see how this plays out in the present day, just look at Fukushima. The latest reports from international bodies suggest that 170 workers who were at the plant itself, or assisted with the cleanup, have a slightly elevated risk of cancer. That's it.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government has come up with a $12 billion recovery plan. Wolfgang Weiss, a physicist at Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection in Munich, has suggested that the only way to truly decontaminate the area that was affected by the radioactive steam plume from Fukushima would be to turn upside-down the top meter of soil in the entire area. But, he notes, "if you do that, you would kill the whole ecosystem."="#>

One hundred thousand residents have evacuated the area downwind of the Fukushima explosion, including my friend with the geiger counter. Through a translator, he says that the towns that were affected are now totally devoid of families with children. And, he adds, it seems likely that they won't ever come back.

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A street in the Fukushima exclusion zone (Reuters).

Living near Chernobyl or Fukushima is probably safer than a long list of other activities (including, for example, living in places with high levels of air pollution). While there are places close to the Chernobyl plant you wouldn't want to go, and hotspots scattered throughout Belarus, most of the contaminated areas of both Chernobyl and Fukushima represent levels of radiation exposure that aren't substantially different from the higher natural background levels of radiation present on some parts of Earth (like ultrahealthy Boulder, Colorado, say).

Presented by

Christopher Mims is the science and technology correspondent for Quartz. His work has appeared in Wired and Scientific American, as well as on the BBC.

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