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

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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).

The thing is, that doesn't matter. In both cases, through negligence and poor planning, two of the most technologically advanced civilizations on the planet -- the USSR and Japan -- effectively dirty-bombed huge swaths of their own territory. The astronomical cleanup costs are just the beginning -- the real impact is the fact that key productive areas (grain near Chernobyl, fisheries and rice in Japan) are rendered completely non-productive for decades, even centuries. Having a reactor explode is a disaster on par with a small-scale war, only it's as if you can never get all the unexploded munitions out of the ground after the crisis has passed.

Just outside the Chernobyl exclusion zone, I visit a family living in abject poverty -- single mother, grandparents, four kids, all crammed into two rooms -- and they talk about their health issues, including thyroid problems. Later, poring over the literature on health effects of radiation from Chernobyl, I'm unable to find studies that suggest that the kind of general, non-cancerous maladies of which they complain can be linked to the explosion.

And that's when it hits me: the health effects of poverty are well known. And these people are poor because they live in an area in which no one wants to invest. The nearest town, Chernigov, is a Soviet outpost frozen in time; rusting buses manufactured before the fall of the iron curtain ferrying passengers from one drab block of concrete apartments to another. Later, I visit Kiev, Ukraine's capital, hundreds of kilometers from Chernobyl, and even accounting for the usual difference between the boonies and the big city, the contrast could not be more profound. Kiev looks like Frankfurt.

In other words, it doesn't matter that nuclear disasters are, in point of fact, relatively harmless in their direct health impacts. (Or at least that their health impacts elude the discernment of public health studies.) What matters is that when a plant blows up, it undoes, by many orders of magnitude, all the economic benefit of all the energy it ever produced.

Advocates of nuclear power argue that newer plants are safer. That we learn from disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. And that's true. But both events were black swan-type occurrences anyway. One recent study suggested that, as the number of nuclear power plants in the world increases, especially in China and the developing world, we could have a severe nuclear reactor accident every 10 to 20 years.

Given that the long-term consequences of meltdowns, radioactive waste, and the billion-dollar price tag attached to decommissioning old nuclear power plants aren't included in the cost of nuclear power, yet new plants are seeing substantial cost overruns, the real issue is, why are we spending enormous amounts of money on a technology that is merely comparable in cost to wind and other renewables, and which is only one-sixth as efficient, per dollar, in terms of greenhouse-gas mitigation?

The Economist, not exactly a friend to radical environmentalists, recently declared nuclear power "The dream that failed ... for reasons of cost as much as safety." And owing to their need for vast supplies of water at sufficiently low temperatures, nuclear power plants are uniquely vulnerable to climate change.

This hasn't stopped the UK and China from pushing ahead with more nuclear power plants. Historically, the countries with the most nuclear power are those which decided they needed nuclear weapons, and then figured out they could also use the technology for civilian purposes. So until the end of time there's also the fact that, hey, if nuclear power is so innocuous, why won't we let Iran have it?

Given the expanding number of nuclear power facilities in the world, there is a non-zero chance that another accident is on its way. China, which is building its plants at the same furious pace that led to a lethal accident on its high-speed rail system, may have had one already. By definition, these are extremely rare, long-tail events, but the question remains, if nuclear is so uncompetitive that it requires statism on the scale of France in order to be viable, why have we placed gigantic sources of potential contamination so close to many of the world's most densely populated cities? Why did the last head of the Nuclear Regulatory Regulatory Commission, a group notorious for being a captive of the industry it's supposed to oversee, declare that the in the wake of Fukushima, the US needs to do more to secure its plants?

The debate over nuclear power gets emotional because radiation is scary -- which is exactly why the economic effects of accidents are so devastating: No one wants to live anywhere that's "contaminated," no matter how low the levels. It's not rational, but it's consistent across times and cultures, and it's something we have to consider as we weigh the value of nuclear as a low-carbon energy source against its many shortcomings.

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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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