2 things we believe: Chernobyl was catastrophic, and we need nuclear power more than ever

Matt Bennett and Ray Rothrock
The HBO series shows we’re not going to have another Chernobyl. By far the biggest threat to human safety in power production is from climate change.

HBO’s “Chernobyl” has captured international attention as it revisits the worst nuclear energy accident in history. Watching the series has hit home for us. One of us visited Chernobyl on an official trip with Vice President Al Gore in 1997. The other is a nuclear engineer and a veteran of the industry. Yet both of us agree with the show’s creator, Craig Mazin, who has said that its message is not anti-nuclear. Indeed, we believe that Chernobyl was a terrifying and tragic catastrophe, and that the need for nuclear energy is more urgent than ever.

No one can fly over the miles of abandoned land that makes up the radioactive exclusion zone, look down at the hundreds of rusting earth-moving machines, take in the sarcophagus that covers the ruined reactor, or walk the crumbling streets of nearby Pripyat, without pondering the scale of this disaster.

The “Chernobyl” series captures it brilliantly, and it makes clear that without the breathtaking sacrifice of thousands of Soviet citizens, the result would have been much, much worse: the firefighters who died of horrific radioactive poisoning after battling the initial blaze; the “divers” who waded through radioactive water in pitch darkness to open the valves beneath the reactor, preventing an explosion that could have wiped out much of Ukraine and poisoned the Black Sea; the coal miners who tunneled beneath the reactor to stop the meltdown; the hundreds of thousands of “liquidators” who spent years turning the soil and preparing the exclusion zone. The scale of this disaster was monumental, and the fight to contain it was epic.

Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986.

But as important as it is to learn the lessons of Chernobyl, it is equally vital that we understand the relative risk of nuclear energy production in the modern era. As Mazin’s series reveals, the accident at Chernobyl was the result of two things: a cheap and unsafe Soviet-era reactor, and an almost unbelievable confluence of human errors that occurred in precisely the order necessary to trigger the reactor explosion.

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The Chernobyl reactor type was never built again and never existed outside the Soviet Union. Only 10 remain in use, and all have been modified to prevent a Chernobyl-style event. The Soviet design lacked vital safety features, included on every other commercial power reactor in the world, that would have prevented an accident of this magnitude. And the chain of operator mistakes that led to the Chernobyl explosion would be comical if they had not resulted in tragedy.

So no, we’re not going to experience another Chernobyl. And there has never been another nuclear reactor accident, before or since, that has resulted in human death from acute radiation exposure. Not Three Mile Island in 1979; no one was even injured in the Pennsylvania accident. And not at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, either. There, the World Health Organization said the radiation exposure levels for those evacuated from the area were below detectable levels, though one plant worker died years later from lung cancer related to the accident.

Modern nuclear energy is safe

By contrast, the burning of coal results in about 3,000 deaths in the United States alone every year, according to the Clean Air Task Force. Those are the results of accidents, black lung and other ailments that fell coal miners, as well as the lung diseases that the particulate emissions from coal can cause in the general population. The overall total is down from 30,000 per year in 2000, thanks to the nation shifting sharply away from coal use in power production.

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Moreover, by far the biggest threat to human safety in power production comes from climate change. We simply must cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 if we are to stave off the worst effects of global warming. To get there, we will need not only the nuclear power we have now but much more of it. Because nuclear — like wind, solar, hydro (dams) and geothermal — produces no emissions.

And make no mistake: We will need it all. Our large and growing demand for electricity (think of how many devices you plug in every day) and the coming electrification of vehicles will mean that our power sector must get bigger and greener in a hurry. The only way to do that at scale is to ramp up every source of clean energy. Now, nuclear provides 20% of our electric power, and it accounts for more than half of our emissions-free electricity. (Solar and wind together make up about 20%.) There is no fast path to zero emissions that does not have nuclear’s role going up.

Nuclear energy is our future

The good news is that a whole new crop of nuclear innovators and entrepreneurs are reimagining how we use this technology, with more than 70 advanced nuclear reactor projects underway in the United States. These designs use new types of fuel or coolant that cannot melt down. They are smaller and can provide electricity in hard to reach places, like remote Alaskan villages, which now rely on generators fueled by oil trucked in over dangerous ice roads. And they are flexible — because the wind doesn’t always blow nor the sun always shine, these advanced reactors can fill in the gaps.

The sun still shines on Pripyat, but the people are gone. The Ferris wheel left in the city’s decaying amusement park still stands in testament to the folly of the corrupt, paranoid and inept Soviet system. Yet, as haunting and indelible as those images may be, they do not demand that the world abandon nuclear energy. Rather, the HBO series that brings them to life gives us the opportunity to remember this transformational event. We should honor its heroes and condemn its villains. But we also should refuse to give in to the lazy conclusion that nuclear energy is dangerous or bad. Because modern nuclear energy is safe, and it can play a huge part in saving us from a global catastrophe of unimaginable scale.

Matt Bennett is a senior VP of Third Way, a Democratic think tank. Ray Rothrock is a nuclear engineer and CEO of RedSeal, a cybersecurity company. Follow them on Twitter: @ThirdWayMattB and @rayrothrock

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2 things we believe: Chernobyl was catastrophic, and we need nuclear power more than ever