Yesterday I finished reading Chernobyl, A History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy. I enjoyed reading the first part of the book, which detailed the events leading up to, during and after the explosion. The later parts of the book were informative, detailing the political changes that followed.
Here are my main takeaways from the book:
- Nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs are the same in terms of how they work. They both use the nuclear fission reaction. One is fast and one is designed to let the chain reaction happen slowly and a reactor has all kinds of rods that go up and down to slow or speed the reaction by absorbing neutrons.
- VVER reactors are safer than RBMK. Chernobyl was RBMK.
- Chernobyl never had a core catcher underneath which is structure designed to confine the molten core in the event of a meltdown.
- Engineers who designed Chernobyl has their judgment clouded by their hubris. The reassured everyone that the reactor is as safe as a samovar.
- There are different types of radioactive radiation and not all of them are detected by dosimeters.
- People who report feeling the effects of the radioactivity have probably received incredibly high doses.
- The fact that it is an invisible threat makes people make all kinds of mistakes in regards to safety.
- The authorities fucked up really bad and attempts to hide the accident from the population and neighboring countries are unforgivable (and have harmed more people).
- Eastern European countries and Russia have a fear of drafts that is similar to the one described by some members of my family.
- Despite early attempts at secrecy, the public demand for information both local and international after the accident ushered the policy of glasnost (openness) shortly after the accident. This eventually was part of the events that led yo the collapse of the soviet union.
- Estimating the number of deaths due to a nuclear disaster is difficult. Even though 50 people died from acute radiation, the estimates for long term effects ranged between 4000 to 90,000. Not to mention other impacts to health and social effects.
- The area around the reactor won't be safe for human habitation for 20,000 years.
I was 6 years old when the accident happened. I remember the weather update during the 9 o'clock news reporting on wind and pressure fronts and if wind may bring radioactivity to Egypt. People were afraid to buy powdered milk (as it was imported from Europe) for several years after the event.
The second major nuclear disaster I remember was a more recent one. The Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011. An earthquake followed by a tsunami damaged 3 reactors by the coast releasing large amounts of radiation. Chernobyl and Fukushima were the worst nuclear disasters ever in terms of severity, and both required the establishment of 30 km exclusion zones, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Last month, the IAEA gave Japan the green light to release contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean.
Egypt is installing four VVER nuclear reactors on the Mediterranean coast as part of Al-Dabaa Nuclear Power Station. The core catcher for the first reactor was installed few days ago amid major jubilation from state-controlled media. Russia is financing and building the reactor and will provide the fuel and process the waste for its entire life-cycle. There is a plan to gradually involve Egyptian companies in providing spare parts for the machinery of the reactor (with a maximum of 35% involvement). EIPR is the only NGO I know of that examined the topic.
The website of the Nuclear Power Plants Authority states that the new reactors will stick to the latest safety standards recommended by the IAEA following the Fukushima disaster. This brings to my mind the tsunami that hit Alexandria in the year 365 AD. A powerful earthquake in Greece sent a huge wall of water destroying ships, buildings and killing 5000 people and destroying 50,000 homes.
Errr... shouldn't we just invest in solar power instead? 🤷♂️
Here is a scary quote from the epilogue of Plokhy's book:
"Volatile Egypt is currently building two reactors-its first in history. Are we sure that all these reactors are sound, that safety procedures will be followed to the letter, and that the autocratic regimes running most of those countries will not sacrifice the safety of their people and the world as a whole to get extra energy and cash to build up their military, ensure rapid economic development, and try to head off public discontent? That is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union back in 1986."