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The road from Chernobyl

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GENEVA—Like a modern-day Pompeii, the streets and buildings of Prypyat stand frozen by a disaster. But, unlike the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago, Prypyat was destroyed by a manmade—and thus preventable—catastrophe.

Weeds and grey desolation are all that thrive in this once-bustling community, which housed the workers of Chernobyl’s doomed nuclear power plant, whose devastating meltdown 26 years ago still inflicts physical and socioeconomic harm on many in Ukraine and nearby countries. Back then, the world was, for an instant, shocked by the folly of nuclear technology. But, as with Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, and last year’s Fukushima meltdown in Japan, the spike in global dismay was all too fleeting.

This myopia is a symptom of steady population growth, coupled with consumption-driven economies and ever-increasing demand for cheap energy. But the risks clearly outweigh the alleged benefits. While nuclear energy’s advocates often claim that there have been only two major calamities, a very different picture emerges if we consider other “accidents” that caused loss of human life or significant property damage.

Between 1952 and 2009, at least 99 nuclear accidents met this definition worldwide, at a cost of more than $20.5 billion, or more than one incident and $330 million in damage every year. This recurrence rate demonstrates that many risks are not being properly managed or regulated, which is worrying, to say the least, especially given the harm that even a single serious accident can cause. The meltdown of a 500-megawatt reactor located 50 kilometers (31 miles) from a city would cause the immediate death of an estimated 45,000 people, injure roughly another 70,000, and cause $17 billion in property damage.

During a visit to Chernobyl in April, I learned about a new project to build, by 2015, a “shelter” to lock in the radiation still emanating from the reactor. The price tag is estimated at 1.5 billion euros ($1.9 billion). But this sarcophagus is no more than a wildly expensive Band-Aid, which will be ripped off a still-festering wound in 100 years, by which point, it is hoped, a permanent solution will have been found.

A 30-km exclusion zone still rings Chernobyl, leaving once-fertile lands unable to be tended by local farmers. In Belarus alone, roughly 8,000 square kilometers of farmland, an area almost the same size as all of Switzerland’s agricultural terrain, has been rendered by radiation unusable for ages.

Then there is the issue of who pays to build such facilities. In principle, private capital does not flow to nonprofit activities. In fact, it is flowing to renewable energy sources, not atomic. According to a 2012 Pew Charitable Trusts report, the United States, for example, invested more than $48 billion in renewable energy in 2011, up from $34 billion in 2010, regaining first place in the global clean-energy investment rankings.

It is governments—and thus taxpayers and bondholders—that finance nuclear plants. Moreover, the alleged “cost-savings” of nuclear power never include the price tag for direct and indirect governmental subsidies, decommissioning of aging facilities, and emergency cleanup and remediation of impacted communities when disasters occur—all, again, at taxpayers’ expense.

At Fukushima, for example, the bill will include the costs of the heroic efforts by hundreds of workers to cool down the plant’s reactors; the protracted loss of economic output in the 20-km exclusion zone (estimated at $128.5 billion by Roubini Global Economics); decommissioning and cleanup costs; and the costs of replacing 4.7 gigawatts of generating capacity. On top of that, there is the possibility of health-care costs resulting from exposure to radioactivity.

All of these hidden costs make the price of nuclear energy higher than the price of shifting to renewable energies and improving energy efficiency. Of course, with 15 countries relying on nuclear power for 25 percent or more of their electricity, we cannot abandon it overnight. On the contrary, nuclear plants will be with us for years to come.

But steps can be taken. For example, it is estimated that adequate measures for insulating buildings or devising new energy-savings systems could reduce our electricity bills by 20-40 percent. With roughly 15 percent of global electricity supplies produced by nuclear plants, energy-saving measures could go a long way toward diminishing the need for them.

Countries like Brazil, which has a rapidly growing economy and relies on nuclear generation for 3 percent of its power, are moving in this direction. Officials there announced in May that the country would not develop its nuclear sector for the next decade, partly because of Fukushima. Brazil has thus sent a clear message to other emerging economies—like Russia, India, and China—that sustainable growth must rely on renewable, safe sources of power.

Brazil’s step is also timely, coming before the June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, or Rio+20. This meeting-despite some misgivings—is crucial. We have no choice but to embrace change, and rare events like Rio+20 offer an opportunity to get the global community out of harm’s way. Project Syndicate

Alexander Likhotal was an advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev when he was president of the USSR, and is currently president of Green Cross, the environmental foundation based in Geneva.


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