Navigation and service

Rethinking after Chernobyl and Fukushima – man and nuclear energy in the 21st century

On the occasion of the commemoration ceremony "Chernobyl as a European challenge" for the 25th anniversary on 26 April 2011, Wolfram König, president of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection from 1999 to 2017, gave a speech on the reactor accident in Chernobyl in the French Friedrichstadtkirche church on Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin. This article contains a translation of Mr König"s speech.

begin 2011.04.26
location French Friedrichstadtkirche church on Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin
Speaker Wolfram König, president of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection

Wolfram König Wolfram KönigWolfram König, President of BfS from 1999 to 2017

Rethinking after Chernobyl and Fukushima

Images come to mind when I hear the name of Chernobyl. The blurred photo of the burst reactor 4, taken from a helicopter, the image of a young woman suffering from radiation sickness, sitting on the hospital bed or the image of a classroom in the evacuated town of Prypiat.

The Chernobyl disaster on 26 April 1986 has been engraved on our collective memory. However, what has actually remained as indisputable truth after 25 years, apart from an anniversary (receiving more or less large major media attention)? How do the countless, immediately affected people cope with the consequences and how do they receive practical help today? What consequences have been taken from the most catastrophic event in the history of the peaceful use of nuclear energy until that time? And how can one manage using the experiences gained for a better future and averting that the half-life of recollection is only a fraction of the radioactive nuclides escaped from the reactor?

What had happened in the night from 25 to 26 April 1986?

What had happened in the night from 25 to 26 April 1986? An operating error made by the operating staff in a test run resulted in an uncontrollable release of energy in the fuel elements of reactor 4. The coolant evaporated, the reactor exploded and the reactor building was blasted. Because of the graphite fire and the explosion, a large amount of radioactive material was flung into great heights.

This release of radioactivity led to many people being contaminated by radioactive material. Contaminated from the outside through the deposited radionuclides and from the inside because they had incorporated radioactive substances via inhaled air, food and drinking water. Just in 1986 and 1987 about 200,000 persons were deployed as rescue workers and clean-up workers (so-called "liquidators") within the 30-kilometre exclusion zone around the damaged nuclear power plant. More clean-up work was carried out until approximately 1990. Altogether, around 530,000 liquidators were registered for these works.

Apart from staff and action force, in particular children and adolescents were affected by the high radiation exposure. The areas with the highest level of radiation exposure are located in the Ukraine, the Russian Federation and in Belarus. At the time of the accident, about five million people used to live in these areas.

The radiation exposure due to the released radioactivity harmed the health of countless people

The radiation exposure due to the released radioactivity harmed the health of countless people, in particular in the area around Chernobyl. Furthermore the social and corporative traumata pose the greatest problems to the population in the area around Chernobyl. An area within a radius of 30 kilometres was evacuated. About 340,000 people lost their homes. The Chernobyl disaster has socially uprooted very many people. The economies, especially in the Ukraine and in Belarus, still need to use essential parts of their national budgets and their gross national product to cope with the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the accident, Mikhail Gorbachev said, I quote: "the Chernobyl reactor accident, more than the Perestroika I started, was maybe the actual cause for the breakdown of the Soviet Union five years later". [end of quote]. The trust in the state guaranteeing the safety of its population was shaken to the core.

Today, my thoughts are first of all with the people who are still suffering, directly and indirectly, from the consequences of the reactor disaster. Particularly I would like to mention those who, at risk to their health and lives, tried to prevent things from getting even worse, among others by erecting the sarcophagus above the destroyed reactor building within a very short time. I can understand the resentfulness of those who feel left alone today by state institutions in terms of the effects to their health. And I’m also thinking of those who, as children or adolescents, were confronted with the consequences of Chernobyl or, respectively, who were born into a world that hardly offered them any future perspective.

I know that many people have gathered here today who have been getting involved voluntarily for a long time with these people who feel left alone. Already at this point I would like to express my respect and my gratitude.

After 26 April 1986, the world held its breath

After 26 April 1986, the world held its breath. Something had happened that, in the opinion of nuclear energy supporters, was impossible to happen, but that nuclear opponents had always predicted as a possible scenario of a high-risk technology getting out of control. The so-called residual risk had got a name – Chernobyl. Heads of government had to watch helplessly how truths that had been absolute so far were starting to falter. Far beyond the national borders of the former Soviet Union, the population was profoundly shaken. Large nuclear energy expansion programmes were put on hold in the whole world and later on were given up entirely. States such as Austria or Italy that just wanted to start utilising nuclear energy discontinued the construction of their reactors. And neither could I, who witnessed the time of the great demonstrations in West Germany against the utilisation of nuclear energy, imagine that there would ever be another larger sounding board for building new nuclear power plants after Chernobyl.

However, I had overestimated the power of the images of Chernobyl.

Slowly, the daily updates on television disappeared from the living rooms. With the completion of the sarcophagus it seemed that not only were thousands of tons of contaminated material buried, but also the images of the greatest reactor disaster of mankind so far. The vacuum left by these lacking images was filled by fight scenes within science and the political camps, if nothing else. Regarding the question for the causes of the reactor disaster and the consequences to be derived, the issue was nothing less than the future of one of the large profitable projects of the industrial nations. And not only that: Right from the start, the peaceful use always had another aspect to it: Opening the path to the military option. It was thus not astonishing that the questions and interpretations changed subtly and human suffering was neglected.

Had Chernobyl not also shown that the consequences – at least when looked at from far away – were controllable, even in case of a maximum credible accident? Weren’t the radiation damages – in particular in Germany – grossly exaggerated? And isn’t it the case that the disaster was especially brought forward by the unfavourable reactor-physical and safety-related features of the Chernobyl reactor type?

The dynamics of repressing the risks of nuclear energy that had become visible with Chernobyl accelerated with the breakdown of the Soviet Union

The dynamics of repressing the risks of nuclear energy that had become visible with Chernobyl accelerated with the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The fact accompanying nuclear energy utilisation that, as a result of human error and/or failure of technology, an uncontrollable and long-lasting release of considerable amounts of radioactivity may occur in each of the reactors built world-wide, again became more and more an accepted risk. This was facilitated by communicating it in a way that was plausible and easy to understand: A fine line was drawn between the reactor types of Western and Eastern design. The impression was given that a core-melt accident was improbable to occur in Western nuclear power plants. This way, in political and medial reality, 30-year-old plants susceptible to failure became the securest nuclear power plants on account of their being located in the West. And the nuclear energy stakeholder groups detected the climate change and its unforeseeable consequences for the environment for the change of public opinion they were striving for. For the time being, the last culmination in Germany was recently a large campaign of the utilities who explained to us in a notable form that, on looking closely, all nuclear power plants were actually nothing but “unfavoured climate protectors”. Information about issues such as the concrete safety or the unsolved problem of high-level radioactive waste management was ignored once again.

At the same time, media reports on a return to nuclear energy utilisation or even several states utilising nuclear energy for the first time came thick and fast in the past years. The sad culmination were commitments to states regarding the construction of nuclear power plants in the Near and Far East which had been named among the rogue states not too long ago. And in view of the fact that today missiles of the NATO partners aim at the capital of Libya, people need to be reminded that not even four years ago, the president of France, Mr. Sarkozy, had made an agreement with Gaddafi concerning the delivery of a nuclear power plant.

Yes, the images of Chernobyl were faded, the floodgates seemed to be open, change in public opinion was achieved. Most recently, the federal government realised its election campaign promise and extended the life-spans of nuclear power plants for twelve years on average. A plant-specific safety assessment had not been carried out beforehand.

Following a terrible earthquake and a fierce tsunami, several reactors got out of control in Fukushima

However, 46 days ago a disastrous reactor accident happened for the second time in 25 years. Following a terrible earthquake and a fierce tsunami, several reactors got out of control in Fukushima. And, despite of many emergency measures being taken, this state has not changed six weeks after the event.

The course of events in Fukushima has developed into the most serious reactor accident since Chernobyl. So far, on account of the lack of information and knowledge, the health effects in the Fukushima area cannot be compared with those of Chernobyl. Already now it is certain that in the area around Fukushima a far-reaching radioactive contamination of air, soil and water has occurred. Partially considerable contamination is measured at numerous places, also outside the evacuation zone. In this respect, one needs to ask whether the population is sufficiently protected in case of an abrupt increase in the level of radioactivity. Unfortunately, such a case can currently still not be ruled out. The contamination of the environment depends on when one can achieve confining and finally preventing entirely the uncontrolled release of radioactivity and via which path the radioactive substances disperse. What will still happen and how much radioactivity will be released cannot be foreseen currently. It will take months, not weeks, until the state of the reactors in Fukushima can be referred to as being controlled. Similar to the prohibited area around Chernobyl, parts of the area will be uninhabitable and unusable for decades.

As to the course of events, the events in the Fukushima reactors and cooling ponds are not comparable with the course of events in Chernobyl reactor 4

It is correct: As to the course of events, the current events in the Fukushima reactors and cooling ponds are not comparable with the course of events in Chernobyl reactor 4 at that time. In Chernobyl, radioactivity reached great heights and dispersed over large areas abruptly. In the Japanese Fukushima nuclear power plant, this has not been the case so far and continues to be quite unlikely due to the technical construction of the nuclear power plant. A reactor fire like in Chernobyl where the graphite of the reactor serving as a moderator significantly enhanced the fire, cannot occur in the Japanese reactors. However, as expressed by a newspaper editor, we are dealing with a "core-melt accident in slow motion".

The events in Japan started with a natural phenomenon resulting in damaging effects the security systems of the plant were not designed for and could not cope with. In Chernobyl the starting point of the accident sequence was a combination of technical misdesign and human error. However, the question of deficiency of human planning and action arises for Japan, too. In the area where the accident occurred, nuclear power plants designed against earthquakes were constructed that did not cover the extent known from a historical viewpoint.

When, shortly after the events in Japan, also the German population raised the question whether a considerable radioactive exposure of food via long-range dispersion was to be feared, feature pages filled with articles on the so-called "German Angst". I ask myself why it should be a problem that the citizens of a country do react particularly sensitive to questions of safety guarantees given by the government, not least on account of social conflicts in the last century? Isn’t this reaction to a nuclear power plant with six reactors that is out of control a very human response, as we do not have sense organs that measure radioactive dangers? Isn’t this sensitivity linked with the enormous chance of sustainable developments and hasn’t this alleged fear of the nuclear disaster paved the way for a "German Inventive Talent" that did not stop at "Nuclear Power – No Thanks" but has given the significant boost to innovation to the energy generation of the future?

I personally am more concerned about those people who think that technical systems that are more and more susceptible to failure and more and more complex can only be controlled by additional technology and who, after a short pause, call out: “Keep it up”. No, in view of two nuclear power plant disasters within a period of only 25 years, it is our duty to reconsider our path into the future fundamentally.

Today the disaster in Japan has inflamed the socio-political debate about nuclear energy in Germany again

Today the disaster in Japan has inflamed the socio-political debate about nuclear energy in Germany again, just as it used to be the case after the events in Chernobyl. Then as now, the debate about nuclear energy has become very important socially and has been carried into all political parties.

However, today the debate does not only deal with the technical design of the reactors but goes far beyond that. Initially that was different in the case of Chernobyl. At that time, the Bavarian First Minister and former first Nuclear Minister, Franz Josef Strauß, was talking about the failure – and I quote – of a "communist reactor". Indeed, legal, structural and technical measures were taken as a result of the problems that had become apparent. An indication still visible today is the establishment of the Federal Ministry for the Environment and, later on, of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection. However, at that time the federal government did not intend to challenge the utilisation of nuclear energy basically.

Today, the situation is different. Under the impression of the images of exploding reactor buildings of Western design the federal government has imposed a moratorium on the extension of life spans that became effective five months ago and has ordered a fundamental re-evaluation of the safety of the nuclear power plants in Germany. For this purpose, the seven oldest reactors were taken off the grid.

In parallel an ethics commission has taken up work on generic questions relating to the future of energy supply without using nuclear energy. There will be a public hearing broadcast on TV already this week. I hope that in its evaluations and recommendations, the ethics commission will pay the necessary attention to the entire chain of nuclear energy utilisation. The issues of reactor safety are indeed deemed most important in the public discussion. Utilisation, however, also includes uranium mining including its effects on the environment and the health of the people working there. Utilisation also includes in particular the question of the still unsolved disposal of high-level radioactive waste. But also direct and indirect subsidisations such as limiting the insurance of nuclear power plants of the utilities to 2.5 billion euros, as is the case in Germany, need to be tested.

I would like to come to a close.

According to the nuclear power plant design criteria, the probability of another melt-core accident in one of the 443 nuclear power plants operated world-wide is small. But it is not zero, in particular when events that are practically imaginable have not been taken into account in the design. And not only is the remaining risk hypothetical but becomes a real danger. That was the lesson learnt from Chernobyl and the same applies now to Fukushima. Both disasters show the fallibility of man. Especially the fallibility as to being able to evaluate the consequences of all possible effects on complex technical plants or, respectively, to evaluate interactions with and within these plants properly.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, all parties presented in Parliament have meanwhile included the phase-out of nuclear energy in their programmes and have made this legally binding. Not least was this due to the fact that after Chernobyl, the majority of the population in Germany, which had been constant over the years, have rejected the high-risk technology. After Fukushima there is a chance that a leading industrial country adduces evidence that a safe and affordable energy supply using renewables will be possible in the foreseeable future. It would be a strong message to all those who are still searching for the future in the past.

What we need are not additional images of exploded reactors, of evacuated cities or of people fleeing from not visible dangers of radioactive clouds. What we need are images depicting world-wide access to energy supply in an environmentally friendly, sustainable form.

In short: Images creating desire for the future!

State of 2016.04.26

© Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz