THE BLOG
05/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Chernobyl Could Happen Here

A catastrophe like Chernobyl could happen here. It's the radioactive core of the second-biggest lie in US industrial history.

The atomic pushers say such a disaster is "impossible" at a US reactor. But Chernobyl's explosion spewed radiation all over the world. And Sunday's tragic 23rd anniversary reminds us that any reactor on this planet can kill innumerable people anywhere, at any time, by terror, error and more.

It further clarifies why yet another grab at billions of taxpayer dollars for new reactor construction must be stopped now!

The biggest lie in US industrial history is that "nobody died at Three Mile Island." Just before last month's 30th anniversary of the central Pennsylvania meltdown, critical new evidence was completely ignored by the corporate media.

Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, a former industry executive, reported in Harrisburg that new findings show far more radiation may have been released than previously estimated. Epidemiologist Stephen Wing of the University of North Carolina joined in a study indicating human health was indeed compromised downwind.

To this day neither TMI's owners nor the Nuclear Regulatory Commission knows how much radiation escaped, where it went or whom it impacted. The Gundersen/Wing findings cast new light on the question of building more reactors.

But they got a Stalinesque blackout from all corporate media, which parroted the official lie that "nobody was harmed" at the 1979 disaster.

This week comes official Radioactive Lie #2: "Chernobyl can't happen here."

Chernobyl Unit 4 exploded in the wee hours of April 26, 1986. It was of a different design than US reactors. But its lid was stronger than about a third of the domes covering plants here. The Soviets who ran it also said Chernobyl could not explode, and that in any event its lid would hold.

On October 5, 1966, the Fermi I fast breeder reactor nearly delivered a far worse explosion. Cooled by highly volatile liquid sodium, it teetered for a month on the brink of a radioactive eruption that could have cratered much of southeastern Michigan and permanently destroyed the biggest fresh water bodies on Earth. The accident was kept under Soviet-style wraps for years.

When TMI melted, a potentially explosive hydrogen bubble formed inside the dome. Officials denied there was a melt-down (there was) but were privately terrified the trapped gas could rupture the containment. The escaping cloud would have contaminated millions along the east coast from Boston to Washington.

Chernobyl's cloud blanketed Europe with deadly isotopes. Some came down in California within ten days, killing countless birds and possibly, in the long run, even more people. The radiation then crossed the entire northern United States, contaminating milk in New England. It returned later for a second pass.

Reactor backers say Chernobyl "only" killed 31 plant workers. But the Soviets denied the accident happened, then ran 800,000 drafted "jumpers" through the radioactive corpse for a futile clean-up. They have been dying in droves for two decades.

Chernobyl's radiation rained down on a May Day parade among citizens of Kiev who were told nothing about the catastrophe 80 kilometers away. The heartbreaking deformities plaguing the children born thereafter are the starkest reminders of that horrific day. Dr. Alexey Yablokov, former environmental advisor to the late President Boris Yeltsin, and president of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, has estimated the known death toll at 300,000. The financial costs have topped a half-trillion dollars. The sale of lambs is still banned 2000 miles away in Wales and Scotland, where radioactive cesium still contaminates sheep farms and grazing land.

The tidal wave of cancers, miscarriages, sterility and worse that still washes over the Ukraine and surrounding regions gets ever more horrifying as time passes. Because Chernobyl 4 was a new "state of the art" unit, its core spewed far less radiation than might come from older reactors at Indian Point, New York, or Oyster Creek, New Jersey, which has just been re-licensed to run twenty years beyond its original design specifications.

Chernobyl's design was peculiar to the Soviets. But to say only it could explode is to argue that hybrid cars can't run people over, or that since there are no more World Trade towers, terrorists can no longer kill Americans.

On January 31, 1986, four months prior to Chernobyl's explosion, an earthquake shook the Perry reactor east of Cleveland, which thankfully was not operating at the time. Now it is.

By accident inspectors stumbled onto a football-sized hole eaten by boric acid to within a fraction of an inch through the pressure vessel at Davis-Besse near Toledo. A worker using a candle set a $100 million fire at the Browns Ferry reactor in Alabama. A cooling tower unexpectedly collapsed to the ground at Vermont Yankee. A basketball wrapped in tape was used to stop up a pipe at a reactor in Florida. This March 28, on TMI's 30th anniversary, an unexplained tremor shut Unit Two at Fermi.

And, of course, the first jet that flew into the World Trade Center passed directly over the two decrepit reactors at Indian Point, as well as the three spent fuel pools and one dormant core shut for lack of an emergency cooling system. No reactor on this planet could withstand a similar terror attack.

Small wonder the reactor industry cannot get private financing or insurance and has no place to go with its radioactive waste. Or why its pushers are yet again demanding $50 billion in loan guarantees for new reactor construction, and still more to perpetrate the myth that nuclear fuel can be reprocessed (to help stop this madness, see www.beyondnuclear.org, www.nirs.org, www.nukefree.org.)

Chernobyl remains history's worst human-made disaster. Something slightly different but even worse could be happening as you read this. Building new reactors, and keeping old ones running, will guarantee it.

The only containment strong enough to make atomic energy truly safe is the political power you exert. Chernobyl "can't happen here" only if the reactors are turned off before they kill again.

Harvey Wasserman edits NukeFree.org.