Was Chernobyl the best thing that ever happened to Europe's environment?
By Scott Sumner
A few years ago I would have thought the question posed above was absurd. Of course if operated safely, nuclear power can actually be good for the environment. And yet despite the fact that it is an almost carbon free form of energy, nuclear power is opposed by most environmental groups. Apparently the consequences of a catastrophic nuclear accident are so dire that it’s not worth the risk, despite the lack of carbon emissions from nuclear power plants.
But what if it were the case the nuclear power were good for the environment when operated safely, and even better for the environment when subject to catastrophic accidents emitting large quantities of radiation. Preposterous? Not according to the BBC, the Independent, the National Geographic, The Guardian, Reuters, and other news sources.
Just to be clear, the radiation from Chernobyl has caused some damage to wildlife. But it’s also created Europe’s largest nature reserve, of over 1600 sq. miles. The bottom line seems to be that radiation does far less damage than humans, and thus a nuclear accident that forces humans out of an area is actually good for the environment. Here is The Guardian:
Wildlife is abundant around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, despite the presence of radiation released by the world’s most catastrophic nuclear explosion nearly three decades ago, researchers have found.
The number of elk, deer and wild boar within the Belarusian half of the Chernobyl exclusion zone today are around the same as those in four nearby uncontaminated nature reserves.
Wolves, which are commonly hunted in the region because of their impact on livestock, were seven times as abundant with the zone, according to a study published on Monday.
The findings run counter to previous hypotheses that chronic long-term exposure to radiation would hit animal populations.
“What we do, our everyday habitation of an area – agriculture, forestry – they’ve damaged wildlife more than the world’s worst nuclear accident,” said Prof Jim Smith, professor of environmental science, University of Portsmouth, and one of the paper’s authors.
“It doesn’t say that nuclear accidents aren’t bad, of course they are. But it illustrates that the things we do everyday, the human population pressure, damages the environment. It’s kind of obvious but it’s an amazing illustration of it.”
I’m no expert on the environment, so I’d appreciate if someone would fill me in on where I’ve gone wrong. I do understand that there are lots of good arguments against nuclear power. It’s very expensive. It’s a danger to humans if there is an accident (although I suspect the risk is less than many people assume.) I’m not advocating the construction of nuclear power plants.
But none of that explains the opposition of environmentalists. Nuclear power is one proven way of addressing global warming (it partly explains France’s low carbon emissions, for instance). So if a catastrophic nuclear disaster actually helps the environment, then why is the environmental movement opposed? I don’t get it.
PS. A quick follow-up to my previous post. In fairness to the Modi government, they did announce a liberalization of foreign investment yesterday—something I was unaware of when I wrote the post. Let’s hope I was wrong.