So there was this external stuff going on. And the final thing that caused the accident was the errors on the part of the operators—they intentionally overrode safety precautions, safety barriers and interlocks. They did that because they were pressured to do this experiment. All this means that the two accidents are vastly different. At Chernobyl you had a massive, massive release of radioactivity. While we still don’t have the numbers for Fukushima, I would compare it maybe to a matchstick and a stick of dynamite. It’s a crude analogy, but it gives you some insight.
You mentioned some myths surrounding Chernobyl. How have these impacted the view of events surrounding Fukushima?
Unfortunately, certain interested parties have been employing sensationalist rhetoric, inaccuracies, and outright hoaxes regarding Fukushima. I refuse to dignify with comments SMS hoaxes in the Philippines as well as a map, purportedly from Australia, predicting lethal dose rates affecting the western coast of the United States. Nonsense—that’s all these are.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But then there’s Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts who warned of ‘another Chernobyl’ and predicted ‘the same thing could happen here (the United States),’ and then proceeded to call for an immediate suspension of licensing procedures for a new generation safer reactor design. I find that repugnant.
Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist from the City College of New York who studies string theory, is also out of his depth when it comes to nuclear reactors. He’s not a nuclear engineer, and yet that hasn’t stopped him making borderline hysterical statements during interviews. Kaku claimed, for example, that a ‘China Syndrome’ was possible, that the ‘(Chernobyl) vessel and roof blew out simultaneously’—factually incorrect on both counts: Chernobyl-type RBMK reactors have no reactor pressure vessel.
Also, without providing a shred of evidence, Kaku asserted ‘We’re still seeing people dying of that (Chernobyl) reactor accident.’ He’s no doctor nor health physicist. Kaku also claimed the situation ‘had gone from bad to worse…the reactor is in free fall, and you have three simultaneous meltdowns, and a raging spent fuel pond that could explode.’ Most troubling was Kaku’s careless recommendation, ‘If I had the ear of the Japanese prime minister I would recommend the Chernobyl option (dumping materials from helicopters).’ In fact, dropping tons of materials from helicopters high in the air onto debris and inner reactor building structures might well compromise the integrity of structures designed to contain releases in the first place.
Partly what drove this view is the well-known video footage of helicopters flying over Chernobyl dropping material on the core. But the fact is that they never hit the core. What they were bombing was something that was burning off to the side of the reactor. The second myth about Chernobyl is that the sarcophagus—what they built on top of the reactor—is some kind of monolithic concrete structure that has recently cracked and is releasing radiation. This isn’t true. It’s not a monolithic structure; it was more like a steel tent. This myth about concrete is one of the most pernicious ones about Chernobyl. But I worked for a team on site that is building a new sarcophagus so that the clean-up and decommissioning efforts of the Soviet-built sarcophagus can take place with a much-reduced risk of spreading contamination. They are taking the old one down because it was built on debris, and so no one knows what the actual robustness of that structure.