Its been a long time since the tragedy in Chernobyl. Interest and investment in nuclear energy is back up. Since there is no visible smoking gun like with the coal run power plants and because of the perceived relative safety inferred from the lack of recent incidents, nuclear power, is again being viewed as a safe, green alternative. Even if you disregard the 10,000 year, radioactive waste problem the extent of potential damage from an accident, and accidents will happen, is often overlooked.
Yeah, how big was that Chernobyl disaster? I mean, who can really visualize the Pripyat river and towns like Yelsk, Krasnopollye or Bryansk? It’s not a tourist destination or a some international business center — just a bunch of not very exiting, sleepy, small and unassuming, Eastern European towns. ( maps )
Guess that was a bit of luck. Guess that’s why only a little over 300,000 people had to be relocated. Guess few people are all that upset that in the foreseeable future over 488 square kilometers (189 square miles) will be uninhabitable — seems to be good for the wildlife anyway.
How big is that really? How would that look if it happened to a facility here in the USA? I’ve always asked myself that question since the San Onofre nuclear power plant is only 50 miles from Long Beach. You hear about industrial accidents all the time and even the worst ones seem to be fairly contained — 10, 20 miles away from a refinery, gas pipeline or even chemical factory and you can feel more or less safe. Does that work for radioactivity?
I recently got hold of an editable map of radiation hot spots of Cesium-137 in 1996 resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident based on a CIA Factbook map. I took this info, scaled it to match the Google maps images of 4 USA nuclear power plant sites and created overlays that demonstrate a more immediately understandable scale of radioactive contamination ( maps ). Sure, the results would be individually different and dependent on prevailing winds and atmospheric conditions but all things being equal the immense scale of such events is evident. Yes, our power plants are safer, and yes we have better controls. But even if the chances of a similar accident are just once in a thousand years it seems, judging by the scale of such events, that it’s still not worth it.
Update: Two days after I published this article we had the tragic earthquake, tsunami and now reactor failures in Japan. This just helps emphasise the potential threat of nuclear energy. No matter how hard we try to make it safe there will always be an unforseen human error or natural disaster foiling the bast engeneered plans. It is the potential scope of long term destruction that each plant poses to the populations around it — remember the darker red areas are "Confiscated/Closed zones" in the case of the Chernobyl "accident".
Update 2: Thankfully the Fukushima incident has turned out to be on a much lesser scale then Chernobyl. It's not really over yet because there is no agreed final solution to this dead and deadly nuclear plant. That is something they all seem to have in common — we really don't know what to do in the long term when things go south.
Today the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) published a map that shows the long-term radiation risks to people living near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. So I took the map and skald it to the ones I did to demonstrate the effects of a Chernobyl style event. I often find it hard to imagine the scale of an event like this when they talk about radiuses and evacuations and no-go zones. I hope these maps will help you visualize how bad even a well managed and contained nuclear event could be if it happened in your neighborhood.
Maps showing the range of radiation effects if a Fukushima magnitude disaster happened there. ( click here for Chenobyl radiation maps )
... and remember that there are 104 active nuclear power plants in this country alone.