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Lessons from Chernobyl

Twenty years on, the shadow of Chernobyl clearly hasn?t shortened on a nervous world that is still on the learning curve of tapping one of nature?s fundamental energy sources.

india Updated: Apr 28, 2006 23:59 IST

Twenty years on, the shadow of Chernobyl clearly hasn’t shortened on a nervous world that is still on the learning curve of tapping one of nature’s fundamental energy sources. Chernobyl evidently owed to a mixture of poor design and lax regulation, as to the unsafe operation of its graphite-moderated RBMK reactors. The deadly radiation it spewed out underlined the touchstone of nuclear energy development -- that you just cannot be too careful. There is simply no alternative to designing reactors that will be safe no matter how badly they are operated, as to operating them safely, no matter how bad the design. The Russians ignored this at Chernobyl, as did the Japanese at the Mihama nuclear reactor (where a design flaw led to a steam leak in August 2004, killing several people).

Not surprisingly, such accidents (and worse, attempted cover-ups by authorities) tend to undermine public confidence. The main safety concern has always been the possibility of an uncontrolled release of radioactive material, leading to contamination and consequent radiation exposure off-site. But then it only vindicates the extra expense and effort involved in designing reactors to high safety standards.

There’s no denying that nuclear energy is a viable alternative to fast-depleting conventional energy sources. Compared to the global consequences of using fossil fuels, the local impact of possible disasters related to nuclear power use are inconsequential. After all, the two major reactor accidents -- Three Mile Island (which was contained) and Chernobyl -- occurred in over 10,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation.