Lessons from the past

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The Chernobyl disaster still has much to tell us about the long-term risks of low-level radiation exposure. But only if the necessary follow-up studies are supported.

As the battle to make safe the Fukushima nuclear reactors continues, the political fallout is spreading across Japan and around the world. Despite reassuring early reports, it is clear that significant amounts of radioisotopes have been released from the plant, and some workers there face severe radiation exposure as they try to cool the overheated nuclear fuel. In response, several governments are reviewing the safety and future of their own nuclear programmes. Fukushima has undoubtedly strengthened the hand of those who oppose nuclear power.

The global reach of the disaster brought an echo from history last week when iodine-131 from Fukushima was detected in Ukraine — home to the Chernobyl power plant, site of the world's worst civilian nuclear disaster. A quarter of a century ago, a flawed safety test at Chernobyl triggered a massive explosion and fire that spread tonnes of radioactive material across Europe, and shredded public confidence in atomic energy.

Like Fukushima, the consequences of Chernobyl were wide ranging. In the satellite countries, resentment of Soviet handling of the disaster contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union. Thousands of children developed thyroid cancer after drinking contaminated milk. Billions of crucial dollars from the economies of Ukraine and Belarus were redirected to remediation, health care and compensation. Every day, some 3,500 workers still labour at the plant to prevent further releases, while decommissioning of the site's four reactors has barely begun. Recovering from a nuclear disaster is the task of generations: it will be another 50 years before Chernobyl is just a memory.

As we report on page 562, the pace of recovery at Chernobyl has been slowed by the reluctance of other countries to pay for it. The shattered reactor 4 still lies beneath a haphazard concrete sarcophagus, erected in the frantic months after the accident. Maintenance work keeps it secure — for now — but the walls are streaked with rust and its roof is in a poor state of repair. Engineers want to build a safe confinement arch to allow them to dismantle the reactor, at an estimated cost of US$1.4 billion.

“Recovering from a nuclear disaster is the task of generations.”

The Chernobyl Shelter Fund, managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, has so far amassed more than $800 million of that sum, from 30 donors. But funding shortfalls have delayed the project by years and the 2015 target for completion will be difficult to achieve without more money from the international community.

One immediate consequence of the Fukushima disaster should be to encourage this money to flow. Nuclear accidents have global repercussions, and public mistrust of nuclear power demands that its problems not be left to fester. It is in the world's interest to push forward with safe nuclear power — but also to deal properly with its damaging legacy when things go wrong, as they will.

Today, new nuclear power stations are being constructed in more than a dozen countries. China alone is working on almost half of the 65 reactors currently being built, and there is growing interest in the technology from developing countries. Supporters of the spread of civil nuclear power must acknowledge that some of these countries would be unable to cope alone if faced with a nuclear accident on the scale of Chernobyl.

Nations, particularly those pushing new nuclear build, must invest in bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, to ensure that new and old reactors around the world are sufficiently safe, and that they are fully prepared for the worst. And politicians and the nuclear industry must revisit their relationship with a sceptical public. Being open and transparent about the uncertain costs of new build in countries such as the United Kingdom would be a start. If a public subsidy is required to get them built, then say so. If the industry wants people to believe its assurances that nuclear power is safe, then now is not the time for obfuscation and weasel words, on any aspect of the technology (see page 549).

Governments must also work to present a clear narrative about the health implications of accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. For heroic plant workers exposed to extreme radiation doses — and for those still suffering from Chernobyl's legacy of thyroid cancer — the risks are all too clear. But it is harder to pin down more subtle health effects. There are hints that low-level exposure can raise the risk of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and other conditions, consistent with the idea that there is no safe threshold for radiation exposure. To clarify the situation, the world needs studies of large numbers of people exposed to very low doses of radiation — and Chernobyl can provide those. Funding such research is vital for those affected by Chernobyl's radiation, but it should also answer some of the questions over the future of nuclear power.

People legitimately ask whether the low levels of radioactivity now drifting across Japan are safe. The current best answer is 'probably'. A better response would be to find out, before another 25 years pass.


  1. Report this comment #19463

    James Darnall said:

    This editorial was thought provoking. As a concerned citizen, it seems that nuclear power has been used and applied before it's proper use and place in society has been correctly determined. For example, in a rush to use this great power, politicians and militarist pushed for a military use. The next rush was to use it's great heat generating capacity for peaceful purposes. The nuclear gold-rush has created serious mishaps, even disasters. The rush to produce more power, for well-intentioned purposes has resulted in nuclear facilities being placed on or near fault zones, aquifers, large population centers, and other sensitive areas. Yet, the article seems oblivious to these concerns and draws attention to lack of clean-up money. In my view, money is not the sole root of this evil.

  2. Report this comment #19464

    M Spiering said:

    This article is a poor reflection of Nature's editorials. It says that "[i]t is in the world's interest to push forward with safe nuclear power ? but also to deal properly with its damaging legacy when things go wrong, as they will.", it then goes on to say that "there are hints that low-level exposure can raise the risk of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and other conditions, consistent with the idea that there is no safe threshold for radiation exposure". If these hints proof correct (and even in the absence of extensive longitudinal data from the Chernobyl disaster there is already ample in vitro and in vivo evidence that ionising radiation increases the risk of genetic and cellular damage), why is it in the world's interest to push forward with nuclear power all the while knowing that things will go wrong?

    The recent nuclear disaster in Japan?a technologically highly developed and wealthy country that is obviously unable to prevent and contain a major nuclear catastrophe?teaches us that it is impossible to "deal properly with its damaging legacy". Therefore, it seems more prudent to revisit the idea whether nuclear power is the path to a prosperous future or rather that it will pose a looming impediment to our prosperity and well-being.

  3. Report this comment #19510

    Thomas Dent said:

    Two facts seem to go totally unnoticed: one, the crisis in Japan were caused by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded, plus a massive tsunami and prolonged loss of electrical power; two, there are many more reactors in Japan and almost all of them are still safe.

    This nuclear crisis is totally different from previous ones: it was caused by an exceptionally violent natural catastrophe, whereas Chernobyl, Three Mile Island etc. were caused by bad design or incompetent operation.

    If Japan is able to build reactors that can mostly survive an enormously powerful earthquake and tsunami, and even in the worst case not release dangerous quantities of radiation to the level of causing significant extra risk to members of the public (over and above typical naturally occurring levels of radiation), that is actually a strong argument in favour of the safety of nuclear power.

    If there are magnitude 9 earthquakes all around the world, nuclear reactors will be the least of our problems.

    By the way, I don't remember when the world decided that it was OK to burn coal or oil at an enormous rate, with all the environmental hazards and toxins they imply. (Burning coal releases radioactivity, for example). Why should nuclear power be held to a much higher standard of risk-lessness? No answer forthcoming.

  4. Report this comment #19543

    John Vann said:

    Risk assessment requires that the alternatives are considered. The risk of coal (as measured directly either by death rates, injury and illness rates or anthropogenic contributions to radionuclides in the biosphere) are much higher than nuclear. My guess is orders of magnitude. The only baseload alternatives are fossil fuels and hydro electricity. A 9 magnitude earthquake near a major Dam on China would kill millions. This debate needs to be measured. If we are seriously proposing to shut down 30-70% of many advanced countries power generation, the alternatives must be costed ... including risks.

    Nothing is free. Abandoning very safe modern nuclear technology will have immense costs that those advocating this step will sudder to bear.

  5. Report this comment #19737

    Robert F Holub said:

    Comparing Fukushima to Chernobyl is irresponsible. It was the graphite moderator burning there, ignited by uncontrolled fission. Fission was stopped at Fukushima the moment first tremors reached it. If the wave didn't destroy the backup pumps and their generators there would have been no "disaster" there. It was a mistake the cooling was not driven by gravity – this mistake will certainly not be repeated – but everything carries a risk, and comparing them is exactly what a premier scientific journal like Nature should have done. Like Science, vol 331, 25 March 2011, p.1504, perhaps?
    By the way, what is "severe nuclear exposure"? 2 Sv? .
    Robert Holub

  6. Report this comment #19777

    Igor Mazin said:

    The total number of proven deaths related with nuclear industry is of the order of 100, over its entire history. The number of people dying worldwide in coal mines every year is at least one order of magnitude bigger. I think,it is preposterous to speak about health hazards of nuclear power knowing that the alternative is coal.

  7. Report this comment #24436

    Jagadeesh A. said:

    Good Editorial.Yes. Chernobyl Nuclear Accident still is a concern.Added to this is Fukushima nuclear reactors .These only proves the need for stringent safety measures. Nuclear Energy has a major role to play for peaceful purposes in the fields of medicine,agriculture etc.,

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