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Three Decades On, Chernobyl’s Specter Haunts Nuclear Power

More nuclear plants could combat climate change, but safety concerns plague the industry—fairly or not.

Thirty years ago today an explosion rocked the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, leading to the most serious nuclear disaster in history. Today, a number of residents have filtered back into the “exclusion zone” that was evacuated in the wake of the accident, and the town of Prypyat and its surroundings have become both a wildlife preserve and a tourist destination. But the effects of the accident persist, and are hampering efforts to limit global climate change.

The actual mortality caused by the Chernobyl disaster remains the subject of some dispute. The most authoritative study, published by the U.N. in 2011, found that 28 plant staff and emergency workers—who worked at the site in the hours and days immediately thereafter with little or no protective gear—died as a direct result of radiation exposure. Cases of thyroid cancer among children in the area are thought to have increased, and 15 of them died in the years following the accident. Beyond that, “there is no evidence of a major public health impact related to ionizing radiation 14 years after the Chernobyl accident,” the study concluded.

Residents and tourists have begun returning to Chernobyl, but the effects of the accident still limit the outlook for nuclear power.

In other important ways, though, Chernobyl’s negative legacy persists. Put simply, the nuclear power industry has never recovered from the Chernobyl disaster. The long-heralded nuclear renaissance was further pushed back after the 2011 Fukushima accident, in Japan—which caused zero radiation deaths (see “The Effects of Fukushima Linger After Five Years, but Not from Radiation”). The major factor is cost: according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, building a new nuclear plant costs $5,366 per kilowatt of capacity. A new wind farm costs just $1,980 per kilowatt, a solar farm $3,873, while natural gas plants can be built for just $912 per kilowatt. At those prices nuclear simply cannot compete.

Not all of that excess cost can be attributed to concerns over the risk of a new Chernobyl, but a substantial portion can. Conventional nuclear power plants require massive steel-and-concrete containment buildings, and after the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, fire protection measures were upgraded and inspections enhanced, adding to the cost of operation. Winning a permit for a new nuclear plant in the U.S. is a prolonged and costly endeavor. Investors’ perceptions of risk drive up the cost of capital for nuclear plants, and so on. (For a deep examination of the costs of nuclear power, see this February analysis by Brad Plumer, of Vox.)

New advanced reactor designs could make meltdowns physically impossible and drive these costs down, below solar and close to natural gas (see “Advanced Nuclear Industry to Regulators: Give Us a Chance”). But the specter of Chernobyl makes winning approval for these technologies, not only from regulators, but also from environmental groups and the general public, very difficult. Many scientists and policymakers have concluded that achieving emissions reductions targets under the Paris climate accord is impossible without a dramatic increase in nuclear power. Three decades on, Chernobyl still haunts that endeavor.

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