Today marks the 30-year anniversary of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. There are important lessons for governments to learn from the nuclear incidents of the past. The implications of their actions have significant and far-reaching consequences, says Francis Livens, as he reflects on his own experiences of the events during spring 1986.
I find it a bit odd that anyone under about 40 won’t really know about Chernobyl, in much the same way that the 1957 Windscale fire, which happened before I was born, seems to me like an event from another age.
Chernobyl, 29 April 1986
The first I heard of Chernobyl was a strange throwaway remark on a TV weather forecast, when Ian Macaskill said ‘…so no real worries about plumes of radioactivity for us’. That was on the morning of Tuesday, 29th April 1986, the day after the Soviet Union, as it then was, had officially announced a reactor accident had occurred at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine.
The announcement was inevitable, really, given that, earlier that day, the Swedish power plant at Forsmark had been shut down due to high radiation readings and, while their origins were unknown, it quickly became clear that it wasn’t a problem with Forsmark itself. Other than that, it seemed like business as usual and, on the Friday, we had a meeting with the boss, who was worried that the Sellafield-related projects we were doing were finishing, and he didn’t know what was following along. Little did he know…
I was working for the Natural Environment Research Council in Cumbria at the time and, it being a Bank Holiday weekend, it rained heavily, which wasn’t great for me since I was doing the 40 mile Keswick-to-Barrow walk on the Saturday and got a good soaking. That rainfall coincided with the arrival of a contaminated air mass over the UK and by the time I went into work on the Tuesday morning it was clear something big was happening. Just how big became clear when we took the weekend water sample from the rain gauge on the lawn and put it on a gamma counter. Thirty years on, it is still the hottest material I have ever handled, full of weird and wonderful fission products.
Sleeping bags and cover ups
And then the phone started ringing, and kept ringing for a fortnight, and we descended into a nightmare of hundred hour weeks and being pulled every which way. Episodes which stick in my mind are:-
- Sleeping on the floor at work because we were trying to process samples for plutonium analysis as quickly as possible and needed to minimise delays between the different chemical processing steps (there wasn’t any plutonium in there, but nobody knew that at the time);
- The woman who phoned up and asked if she should have her dog put down because it had been out in the rain and she wanted to save it a lingering death from radiation sickness;
- The number of people who were thinking of cancelling their Lake District holidays and seemed bemused when I pointed out they were only visiting for a week or two, while I lived there;
- Talking at a National Farmers’ Union (NFU) meeting in Calderbridge Village Hall, where I learned how little trust of the Government there was, and that saying ‘I don’t know’ when you don’t, actually works quite well;
- The Daily Record correspondent who talked to us, asked sensible questions, then led his front page story with ‘When the Queen walks her corgis round the Balmoral Estate, they will be walking through radioactive grass…’;
- The Daily Telegraph wine correspondent asking about contamination of the Champagne grape harvest but sadly not falling for our ‘We can analyse champagne for radioactivity if you want, but we need at least a case’;
- The 10am request for a non-technical description of the accident and its consequences on one side of A4 by 12.00 ‘because the Secretary of State is speaking in the Commons this afternoon’.
All this happened in a very different world from the one we inhabit now. There was very little contact with the Soviet Union and the eastern European states. While the idea that a nation state should try and cover up a massive reactor accident seems bizarre now, the Soviet Union did so for days, even from its own citizens.
Our modern world is so connected that, with the possible exception of North Korea, it is difficult to see how this could be achieved for more than a few hours. This was also a world before smartphones, email, social media or 24-hour rolling news – the fax machine (remember them?) was cutting-edge communications technology.
Public confusion and the need to respond
Nevertheless, the public confusion and lack of understanding which we saw around the time of Chernobyl manifested itself again five years ago with the Fukushima accident. It died down quite quickly afterwards, but I wonder how different things would have been if the accident had been closer to us, and significant radioactivity had fallen on the UK?
The ability to respond authoritatively and instantly is more important than ever, given the speed of modern communications, and there’s a lot of work to do here. The ability to put technical ideas across to non-specialists is absolutely critical and we, the techies, need to understand how the media will use what we say – I do not say ‘misuse’ because they don’t do that, but they use it in a way which fits their needs, which often seem driven by the belief that their public wants something sensational, and that can seem to a scientist like oversimplification and misuse. But that’s the reality of the media, so we’d better get used to it!
Government is better prepared. It set up the Radioactive Incident Monitoring Network (RIMNET) across the country, a network that exists to this day. That would mean that we could have near real-time information, and wouldn’t have to rush all over the place collecting samples and bringing them back to base for analysis. They can write their own non-technical summary on one side of A4 for the Secretary of State these days, as well, and have a well-established crisis management machinery (COBRA, SAGE, STAC and a host of other acronyms).
The industry worked out that an accident anywhere had effects everywhere, and the nuclear industry only had a future if everything that could be done to prevent them, was done. This led to the creation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), dedicated to nuclear safety. As new nuclear nations seek to develop nuclear energy, WANO has a key role in supporting them in doing it the right way.
While the radiological consequences of even a severe nuclear accident are arguably pretty limited, with some 43 radiation-linked deaths from Chernobyl, caused by the initial radioactivity release and exposure during the support efforts that followed, and an expected increase in cancers of below 1% in the wider population, the social, political and economic consequences were and are far-reaching and unpredictable. Large-scale evacuations do have severe health impacts, while clean-up costs can break companies and even countries economically, and both can drive political change. Nuclear energy has to be managed responsibly, because the stakes are far too high.
Government remains in a difficult place. Preparation for a nuclear accident is like insurance – you pay for it and hope like hell you’ll never need it – and every pound spent on it is a pound less to spend on real, immediate needs like schools or hospitals. So there is probably always a tension between those real, immediate needs and preparation for a hypothetical accident. Moreover, they say that armies ‘always fight the last war’, and I suspect there’s something of that about emergency planning too – you look back at the last one and think how you could have done better. But of course the next one will be different and will no doubt surprise you.
All that said, the UK is better placed to respond now than it was in 1986, even if that is the sad result of two major nuclear accidents in the last 30 years.