The New York Times :
The right lessons from Chernobyl
Twenty-eight years after Unit 4 at the Chernobyl power plant in what was then Soviet Ukraine erupted into a volcano of radioactivity, its name has become synonymous with the nightmarish side of nuclear power. It is also the site today of an extraordinary international project, the construction of a vast steel shield to cover the leaky concrete ‘‘sarcophagus'' in which the highly radioactive remains of the reactor are to be entombed for at least 100 years.
The construction of what is called the New Safe Confinement by an international team of engineers and workers is already almost a decade behind schedule, and current plans call for it to be completed by 2017. Given the decrepit state of the sarcophagus, it is a race against time. Add to that the uncertainty and near-bankruptcy of Ukraine, and Chernobyl continues to stand as a fearsome testament to the dangers of nuclear power — more powerful than Three Mile Island before it or Fukushima after it.
Yet it is also noteworthy that these civilian nuclear disasters did not and have not overcome the allure of nuclear power as a source of clean and abundant energy. Only Germany succumbed to panic after the Fukushima disaster and began to phase out all nuclear power in favor of huge investments in renewable sources like wind and sun. One consequence has been at least a temporary increase in greenhouse emissions as Germany has been forced to fire up old coal- and gas-powered plants.
The dangers of nuclear power are real, but the accidents that have occurred, even Chernobyl, do not compare to the damage to the earth being inflicted by the burning of fossil fuels — coal, gas and oil. The latest dire warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should leave no doubt that reducing carbon emissions must be an urgent priority and that nuclear energy must be part of the mix.
It leaves no doubt, either, that the world must do what it can to increase energy efficiency and harness sun, wind, ocean currents and other renewable sources to meet our ever-expanding needs for energy. But the time when these can replace all fossil and nuclear fuels is still far off, and in the meantime nuclear energy remains an important means of generating electricity without adding to the steadily increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
For much the same reason, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an independent group formerly known as the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, urged policy makers this week to pay attention to the withering away of America's fleet of 100 nuclear reactors. In the past year and a half, four power companies have announced the early retirement of five nuclear reactors, which supplied 4.2 percent of America's total nuclear generating capacity. Two are in California and one each in Florida, Wisconsin and Vermont. Another company is considering closing as many as three financially struggling reactors in Illinois.
The reasons for the shutdowns vary. In some cases, competition from cheap natural gas and from nearby wind farms has forced reactors to operate at a loss. In other cases, a marginal plant's economic viability has been jeopardized by the cost of replacing steam generators to extend the life of a plant or by the cost of upgrading safety systems to meet new requirements imposed after the disaster in Fukushima.
Whatever the reasons, these sobering trends, if left unattended, will make it harder for the United States to meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The center notes that since 1990 nuclear power has consistently supplied about one-fifth of the nation's electricity and more than 60 percent of all zero-carbon electricity.
The watchword here and in the world at large should be prudence. Prudence in the design, maintenance and operation of all nuclear facilities. Prudence also in the sense that policy makers not be spooked into shutting down a vital source of clean energy in a warming world. The great shield over Chernobyl should also entomb unfounded fears of using nuclear power in the future.
The New York Times is an American daily newspaper , founded and continuously published in New York City since September 18, 1851. It has won 112 Pulitzer Prizes , more than any other news organization t. Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.
Editor's Note: This commentary was originally published by The New York Times on May 1st. The editorial appears in print on May 2, 2014, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: The Right Lessons From Chernobyl. Petroleumworld reprint this article in the interest of our readers.
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