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Is Nuclear Power Just Too Dangerous?

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On February 24, 2022, Russian troops began occupying Ukrainian territory in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant 26 years earlier remains the worst nuclear disaster the world has yet experienced. In the days following the original accident, the winds blew northwest, showering significant levels of radiation over what were then the Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as Finland, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Austria, and the two Germanys. This meteorological history raised a terrifying possibility: Did Russia plan to weaponize Chernobyl as retaliation for Western sanctions?

Soon enough it became clear that Russian forces were not actively targeting Chernobyl’s facilities, including the sarcophagus that protects the damaged reactor core. Rather, they had chosen the sparsely populated area as the fastest route from Belarus to Kyiv. But the Russians’ continued presence raised other concerns. On March 9, the plant lost power. Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Agency accused Russia of cutting the power in preparation for a terrorist operation—a man-made disaster—that the Russians would then attempt to blame on Ukraine. Russia denied these charges and claimed to have repaired the supply the next day.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, issued assurances that there was no cause for alarm. But nuclear watchers could be forgiven for their panic. The spotty news emerging from Chernobyl this spring uneasily echoed the trajectory of several of the world’s major nuclear disasters, including Japan’s Fukushima and Three Mile Island in the United States. The remains of the facilities at Chernobyl, like those at Fukushima and Three Mile Island, rely on circulating water to lower the temperature of radioactive waste. In theory, every nuclear facility that relies on a water system to cool either the reactor or the fuel rods has backups to ensure that water continues to circulate in the event of a power outage or a catastrophic leak. In practice, every major nuclear disaster involving a modern reactor has been caused by the failure of those systems to engage. The original Chernobyl disaster was, in fact, triggered by an attempt to test those backup systems. Thankfully, in 2022 the backup generators switched on.

None of this had yet transpired when Serhii Plokhy, a professor of history and director of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, began writing Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters. Nuclear power has, in fact, been gaining popular support, despite its dangers. In recent years, some climate activists have aligned with the nuclear power industry to argue that nuclear power offers the only off-ramp from the urgent and existential threat of climate change. The World Nuclear Association, an industry lobbying group, wants to raise the share of electrical energy produced by nuclear plants from 10 to 25 percent by 2050.

While Plokhy acknowledges the threat of climate change, his study of the history of nuclear accidents has........

© New Republic

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