Deadly cloud, silver lining

March 22, 1996

The Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster had some benefits. It damaged the nuclear electricity industry and was a catalyst for the break up of the Soviet Union, argues Zhores Medvedev

Although completely destroyed by the first atomic bomb, Hiroshima revived after the explosion. Within ten years it had grown to its former size, despite the fact that 130,000 people died there. The explosion of one of the four reactors of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986 destroyed not a single dwelling. But the evacuated towns adjoining Chernobyl are still deserted ten years later - and living there will be impossible for the next three or four centuries. So far the economic cost of Chernobyl has been about $200 billion. But the accident will exact tribute, paid in money and human lives, for years to come.

Dozens of people died from acute radiation sickness while thousands more were exposed to health-damaging radiation. About 130,000 Ukrainians and Belorussians were immediately evacuated from badly contaminated areas and a further 100,000 were evacuated in the next four years. Vast swathes of farmland in three republics were rendered useless. Expensive preventative measures against the effects of radiation were undertaken across Europe.

The indirect effect of Chernobyl was more widespread. The construction of atomic power stations worldwide was suspended and projects to build fast breeder reactors using plutonium fuel were halted. The programme of moving from fossil energy sources, of which there were limited reserves, to atomic energy was postponed.

This atomic backlash, even if caused by the Chernobyl tragedy, can be justified. Before 1986 the world was rushing headlong into the era of atomic energy. In the 1960s, when the first nuclear power stations appeared, atomic energy was still expensive and programmes to develop it experimental. As a result of the oil crisis caused by the 1973 Arab-Israeli war this situation changed radically. The huge rise in the price of oil provoked an "energy panic". Suddenly, atomic energy was perceived as a saviour. From 1974 to 1986, about 250 new energy reactors of various kinds were constructed. By 1986 70 per cent of French, 67 per cent of Belgian, 50 per cent of Swedish, and 25 per cent of American electricity came from atomic stations.

Later, and for different reasons, the Soviet Union joined the race. The increase in world oil prices made it advantageous for the USSR to increase oil exports while generating electricity from atomic fuel for its own needs. In 1973 there were 13 energy reactors in the USSR. At the main atomic power plants, in Kursk, Smolensk, Leningrad and Chernobyl, first-generation reactors were installed, while pressurised water-reactors were built in Armenia, on the Kola peninsula, and exported to Eastern Europe. When world oil prices reached their zenith of $40 a barrel, a rapid programme to build atomic reactors was launched. Forty-nine reactors were in operation by 1986, and two more being built. It was envisaged that the USSR would overtake the United States (where there were 109 reactors) and produce almost twice as much atomic energy. All these plans were suspended after Chernobyl.

It is far more expensive to build nuclear power plants than it is to build fossil fuel stations. The economic benefits of such plants occur only after they have been in use for some time. Nor do they pollute the atmosphere with carbon dioxide or produce "acid rain". But following any serious accident at a nuclear power plant, innumerable new safety demands are made, increasing the construction time and the costs. After Chernobyl significant modifications had to be made to Soviet reactors. The safety of reactors in other countries was also reviewed.

These new security demands increased the cost of atomic electricity. At the same time, the price of oil and other forms of fossil fuel began to fall unexpectedly. By the summer of 1986 a barrel of oil cost only $10. Between 1980 and 1985 atomic energy had been relatively cheap. But after 1986 it became cheaper to produce electricity by burning oil or fuel oil again. Moreover, power stations that used natural gas had become the simplest and the cheapest to build. Gas turbine power stations caused less atmospheric pollution than oil-fired stations.

The prevailing tendency after Chernobyl to build natural gas power stations turns out to be fully justified from an economic point of view. In Russia about 60 per cent of electricity is generated by power stations which operate on natural gas.

But atomic energy continues to be important. Japan, Korea and Taiwan do not have their own oil, gas or even coal resources. As a result, the programme to build nuclear power plants and accumulate uranium and plutonium fuel has continued in the Far East, albeit at a slower pace. The Russian far east needs nuclear plants for the same reasons.

Armenia, which has no fossil fuel resources, has decided to recommission its nuclear plant which was shut down after the earthquake in 1988. Last December's launch of one of the reactors was celebrated almost as if it were a national holiday. The anti-nuclear mood has also weakened in independent Ukraine. Oil and gas might be cheaper forms of fuel, but they have to be purchased for hard cash - of which Ukraine has very little. But Ukraine does have uranium deposits and a large quantity of highly enriched weapons-grade uranium from dismantled nuclear missiles and warheads. This is why the Ukrainian government intends completing the partially constructed reactors at a number of plants if Western governments will extend the necessary credit. Moreover, Ukraine has resisted Western demands to close the two reactors at Chernobyl which are still working, although international agencies have declared their safety unsatisfactory. Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia are in the same situation. They continue to use their old Soviet reactors because they do not have the financial means to modernise them. But the country that is most dependent on atomic energy is Lithuania - 97 per cent of its energy requirements are provided by two reactors which also enable Lithuania to export energy.

At present atomic energy provides about 12 per cent of electricity in Russia. The new generation of reactors in Russia are pressurised water reactors with a higher level of safety, but less power. Russia also plans to use the reactors of nuclear submarines as floating power plants for the coastal areas of the Arctic and the Far East, and to use nuclear submarines to transport goods under the Arctic ice. Russia is also exporting reactors and uranium, particularly to Iran and the People's Republic of China.

The development of atomic energy in Russia is considered economically viable. There are sufficient reserves of enriched uranium in Russia to refuel reactors until the year 2030. To this can be added the vast amount of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium which can also be "burnt" in special reactors. The main problem for the atomic industry is lack of money. The domestic and industrial energy consumption of Russia has long been similar to that of such Western countries as Germany, France and Britain. However, the former Communist state subsidised the electricity production (and gas, coal and oil) generously. The fuel and energy complex is one of the main obstacles to Russia's complete transformation into a market economy.

Before the economic reforms domestic consumers paid four kopecks, industry paid three kopecks and the agricultural sector paid 1.8 kopecks for a kilowatt-hour of electricity. At these prices the power stations did not make any profit and all construction and modernisation projects were paid for out of the state budget. Attempts to raise prices have simply led to the non-payment of bills. Although even today, at the beginning of 1996, electricity is sold to consumers at prices four or five times lower than world prices, consumers owe 39 trillion roubles for electricity, and the electricity distribution companies owe 31 trillion roubles to the power stations. The main debtors are state industries, schools, institutes, universities and military installations.

In Russia about a trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity are consumed each year. But the average income in Russia is at least five to six times lower than in Western Europe. State subsidies for electricity and heating cannot be abolished, even by the most reform-minded government. The command-administrative economy of socialism will fight its main battle with the laws of the market on the issue of supplying cheap heat, gas and light, rather than charging commercial prices.

But the significance of Chernobyl extends beyond this vexed question of energy. Perestroika and glasnost only really appeared in the USSR after Chernobyl. Without Chernobyl, which brought so much unhappiness, most of all to the people of Ukraine and Belorus, the manifestations of nationalism which drove them to such hasty declarations of independence and the destruction of the USSR would not have occurred. The "divorce" of the three Slavic peoples who had lived in a common state for centuries was yet another consequence of the tragedy at Chernobyl.

Zhores Medvedev is the author of Soviet Science (1978), Nuclear Disaster in the Urals (1979) and The Legacy of Chernobyl (1990).

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