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sabato, 28 Maggio 2022

The dead man’s hand. Why people are afraid of nuclear energy

18.01.2022 – 11.00 – In 1876, Bill Hickok, the hero of the Wild West and American frontier folklore, was playing poker in a saloon; one of his enemies walked in and shot him in the back. Hickok died silently and fell to the floor without losing his cards. They were two black pairs of eights and aces and a mysterious face-down card: the ‘dead man’s hand’. As for energy, and therefore the environment, we, the people of 2022, sit today in our saloon of twenty-seven nations and in the regional parliaments of the periphery, while someone plays the piano and deals the cards for the game we are about to play against our planet, and we do so quietly. But the table could fall over, or we could be shot in the back, and to think that the planet and not humanity could lose this game is, if anything, presumptuous.

Statistically, if we took a plane from any airline every day, it would take 25,000 years before we were involved in a serious aviation accident (there is less than one fatal accident per million flights). Similarly, if ten people die in an aeroplane crash every year, that’s a similar story. In proportion, more than 40,000 people never get out of their cars again after a serious accident. The key factor that keeps aviation fatalities so low (and even decreases them year by year) is the steady and continuous improvement in safety due to accident analysis and continuous improvements and advances in technology, design, systems and procedures: Aviation today is not comparable to that of the 1960s, and no one would dream of comparing an Airbus A340 to a commercial aircraft of the 1950s. We should remember this when we analyse today the four words that underlie our fear of nuclear energy: an almost reverential fear.

Nuclear disasters, like earthquakes, are measured according to a man-made empirical scale, reminiscent of the Richter scale, made standard by the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency: It has existed since 1990, is called Ines (“International Scale of Nuclear and Radiological Events”) and has eight levels (from 0 to 7). Nuclear events from 1 to 3 are called “incidents”, those from 4 to 7 are called “accidents”, and this would make us Italian journalists (and politicians) a little uncomfortable, considering that the translation of both is “accident”. The difference lies in the level of damage: a nuclear or radiological accident falls in the 1 to 3 range if it does not result in fatalities, injuries or severe damage to infrastructure or the environment, while anything that does falls in the 4 to 7 range. The “Ines” scale includes anything that happens unexpectedly (so if we really wanted to, we could exclude Chernobyl – which unfortunately, though not in its scale and scope, had been predicted by many Soviet scientists and technicians); there is also a zero level, which includes all events (so-called “deviations”) that have not raised safety concerns; this is the case of the events at the Krsko power plant in Slovenia, which, as the media reported in 2008 and 2013, unnecessarily alarmed the citizens of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Four words, it is said, underlie our terror of nuclear power; more than four words, there are four names: Three Mile Island, Windscale, Fukushima and the last one is the most worrying, Chernobyl. There would also be a fifth, Kyshtym: let us leave it for last.

Windscale, in Her Majesty’s Cumberland, is one of the worst nuclear accidents of all time, even though it was ‘only’ rated 5 on the Ines scale: worse because most people know little about it (they have tried to keep it secret), because it happened in the heart of the Atlantic Alliance at the time (the plutonium produced at Windscale was used for the British atomic bomb: When it was established in 1949, the British were unanimous in favour NATO), and because the site, although renamed Sellafield in the UK (1981), remained one of the most dangerous places in the world for radioactive pollution until a few years ago (well paraphrased, but it existed). The accident occurred on the 8th of October 1957 in one of the two air-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors (this was in the 1950s). It was caused by design flaws motivated by haste (plutonium for bombs was needed immediately) and by the lack of information exchange between Britain and the United States (allies, yes, but not completely), by an energetic physical effect (the Wigner effect, not fully understood at the time) and by the resulting extreme heating of the graphite, by the way it was operated (the cartridges containing the nuclear fuel were pushed into the reactor… by hand, like pizzas in an oven, and sometimes they fell or got stuck).

Ten tonnes of nuclear fuel caught fire and melted in the structure, burning for hours and dispersing radioactive iodine and other substances into the air; the fire was then extinguished by pumping water into the reactor channels (and risking a thermal explosion that did not happen). All the milk and farm produce in the 500 square kilometre area had to be destroyed; the clean-up took decades. Sellafield, ironically, is high on the list of places where Downing Street would like to see a new reactor today, given the demand for energy: not a bad choice, because there is work to be done at the site and it would be worthwhile to intervene radically, even if nothing can be done about the material still there, which will remain radioactive for another 100,000 years. Containing the fire at Windscale was a combination of courage, skill and luck: an explosion would have made a huge geographical area uninhabitable for generations. The cost in human lives was an estimated 100 to 240 cancer deaths in the years that followed: No one died directly as a result of the accident. Reactors like the two at Windscale were a technical folly of the Cold War and were never built again.

Three Mile Island in the USA (Pennsylvania), also a Level 5 accident like Windscale and actually much less risky, was made famous by the film ‘China Syndrome’ starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas: the film speculated that the out-of-control reactor could dig a hole as deep as the earth and reach China. It was fantasy and Hollywood, but the idea struck a chord with audiences. “China Syndrome” was also one of the first examples of “no-tell”: the plot assumes that the government will do anything not to tell the truth to the citizens, leading to the living death of the power plant manager, who is mad because of the risk the world is taking and that no one wants to admit. It was not quite like that, but conspiracies were as fashionable then as they are now. At the Three Mile Island power plant in the United States, a vent valve in the cooling system was left open due to a fault, causing large amounts of coolant to leak out; the operators, poorly trained and ill-prepared to deal with such problems, did the procedures wrong, time passed (too much time) and, to make matters worse, the management system was inadequate. Buttons and controls were in the wrong places, there was a lack of clear scales and readouts and, most importantly, a cacophony of alarms rang out in the control room, confusing those trying to remedy the situation. Without a sufficient supply of coolant, the reactor experienced a partial meltdown and partial explosions inside.

The accident lasted a few hours, but more than enough time to release a detectable amount of radiation and the dangerous iodine-131, alerting residents in the area who decided to voluntarily evacuate the area after repeated incomplete and clumsy communications from the plant’s director and managers. The damaged reactor was later demolished despite an original plan to repair and restart it. Studies carried out in the following years showed that there were no cancer deaths within a radius of 16 kilometres and no above-average effects on human health or the environment: no causal link between radiation and health, in other words. However, the accident had become a symbol of the struggle for the environment, which was very much alive in the 1970s (as it is today), and the Jane Fonda film had consecrated it. No one died as a result of the Three Miles Island accident, neither the operators nor the population, not even in the years that followed.

In Fukushima, the most recent nuclear accident, with scenes that even the youngest remember thanks to live television broadcasts, something of everything happened: not to the reactor, however, but to the world around it. First an earthquake, the one in Tohoku, and then a tsunami that caused total destruction and the death of almost 20,000 people in a large geographical area of Japan. In 2011, however, despite being hit by the seismic wave and then by the fury of the sea, the reactors at the Daiichi power plant functioned perfectly and shut down automatically as planned: everything stopped, no one was killed or injured and no radiation leaked out, despite an unprecedented earthquake (9 degrees magnitude and six minutes duration). The story of the Fukushima nuclear power plant could have ended here, as a demonstration of the strength and resilience of technology even in the face of nature’s fury. Daiichi had BWR (boiling water reactor) type reactors, a technology developed in the 1960s by General Electric and later by Toshiba and Hitachi. It was therefore not a newer plant from the 1970s: What was missing in the tsunami-ravaged area and at the plant was electricity.

No electricity, no cooling of the reactor, and again, uncoordinated intervention in an extreme situation caused some of the safety devices to jam. And despite these efforts, nothing could be done: The overheating generated by the reactor led to explosions and the release of radiation. Those who speak of 2,000 casualties because of Fukushima (in reality the figure is between 1,300 and 2,000) refer to the estimated death toll due to evacuation in the area already devastated by the tsunami and earthquake (and this has been the cause of much controversy and conflict between citizens’ committees and the Japanese government: had citizens been allowed to return to their homes earlier, the citizens’ committees say, the bill would have been much lower). There is only one confirmed death due to radiation, and the number of abnormal cancer cases is expected to rise to a hundred in the coming years.

Everything about Chernobyl is known, or we think we know, after numerous films and TV dramas. Not everything we see on TV corresponds to the truth, and in politics even today not everything, although known, is clearly stated. Chernobyl was a predicted tragedy caused by the fact that a large type of reactor, the RBMK (which was also used in many other Soviet power plants), was brought to an extremely unstable state during a planned test by a group of technicians who were not prepared for the situation and did not know the inherent risks of the reactor itself. Basic safety rules were ignored and automation was ruled out, relying on the certainty that manual emergency shutdown would save the plant from extreme consequences in any case: and unfortunately, given the design flaw, this was the fatal error. The failure of a human system therefore led to an enormous (given the size of the plant) thermal (non-nuclear) explosion, which in turn caused an enormous radiation leak. Thirty years later, Italy was the only European nation to abandon nuclear energy, an area in which it was a world leader. It also stopped research and its plants, the flagship of its industry and physics. Fear makes ninety: in Italy this was already the case in 1987, and no one has copied us.

And Kyshtym? Why was it never mentioned? It is true that it was a very big accident, but the place where it happened, the Mayak plant – a plant for the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons inside the closed city of Chelyabinsk-40, in the heart of the then Soviet Union (thousands of kilometres from Moscow, far above Kazakhstan and in the middle of the Urals and nowhere), gives a lot of information. When it comes to the risks of nuclear energy, the explosion at Mayak stands out: The plant was intended exclusively for the production of weapons. The idea was to dump the plant’s waste into tanks that stood in an eight-metre-deep concrete channel: the cooling system of one of these tanks broke down and… although it was known, no one repaired it until the temperature caused by a mixture of ammonium nitrate and acetates led to the vaporisation of gas and a chemical explosion of great magnitude. Seventy tonnes of liquid radioactive waste were ejected into the atmosphere, a cloud of smoke, mist and orange-red dust rose a kilometre into the air and then slowly descended on houses and people. Ten thousand people were evacuated from the area, which remains the most contaminated in the world. There were no immediate deaths, and it is estimated that about 200 people will die of cancer in the following years.

Every year, 5 million people die as a result of extreme weather conditions, both heat (to a lesser extent) and cold (much more). If the trend of climate change is not stopped, the price in human lives will rise rapidly. It is a duty to fear the atom: The atom, they say, is like the sea and does not forgive incompetence, negligence or ignorance. However, 438 nuclear reactors are in operation worldwide and 55 new reactors are under construction. So, with 438 reactors in operation for decades, the accidents we are afraid of total five – two from the 1950s (i.e. seventy years ago, and in two reactors intended for the military) and only one, Chernobyl, which had significant consequences. The total number of nuclear accidents classified as significant since 1952 is 33, all of which (with the exception of the five mentioned and the Chalk River accident in Canada in an experimental reactor in 1952, the first recorded) were without consequences and ranked low on the Ines scale. Given these statistics, rejecting nuclear energy out of hand, even as a transitional solution pending more efficient renewables (for a few decades and as a means to accelerate and support decarbonisation), at a time when the alternative for Europe is to be dependent on Russian gas from the Nord Stream pipeline, even as Vladimir Putin simultaneously puts pressure on Ukraine, and insist on firing up more coal-fired power plants again, could be our death sentence.

[Roberto Srelz]

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