On 26 April 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear apocalypse took place claiming lives of thousands of people as a result of direct and indirect radioactive poisoning.
But what so far has been almost completely left outside the public debate is the colossal detrimental effect of this disaster on the normal development of nuclear power generation industry the world over. One may hear either the debate about the deadly result of the Chernobyl event or the discussion of whether going nuclear is acceptable to move away from burning fossil fuels, but never these two, seemingly different debates go together. However it could be extremely important to tackle in a straight and proper way the general post-traumatic syndrome that as likely as not has set back development of the Western nuclear power industry by decades. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the mainstream opposition against the nuclear solutions is 'covering' its case with all kind of ecological arguments, unwillingly masking heavy influence of the tectonic socio-psychological shifts resulting from the Chernobyl meltdown.
Only after oil price made itself quite comfortable around a new 'normal' level of $80-85 per bbl and the price of Russian gas surged beyond $400 per thousand cubic meters did the German Government tentatively decided to delay the permanent shut-down of one of its major nuclear power stations, and it's still unclear whether it will be able to take a step further towards building up its nuclear capacity. Would this wavering political behavior have been the case if it were not for this incredibly strong and equally as prejudiced public opposition against anything nuclear? Would the heart of European Economy as well as Europe on the whole have been critically dependent on the supplies of Russian gas in the first place if it had not been for these lost decades for the nuclear sector? From the Baltic to Bulgaria, governments in Eastern Europe are increasingly looking toward a revival of nuclear power generation to meet growing energy demand, looong after those new members of European family had been forced to mothball or permanently shutdown its nuclear facilities under the pressure from EU. Those decisions and instructions by EU were taken in a rather uncompromising and simplistic way without paying much consideration to the possibilities of modernization or replacement, or just installation of new safety and control system in place. The main factor, again, was FEAR, the horrible pictures invoked by the phantom of Chernobyl, not the reasonable caution. Now governments in Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia are renovating old nuclear plants or considering building new ones. Hardly surprising after a large chunk of Eastern Europe was literally frozen by Russia cutting off gas supplies almost for half a month in Jan 2009. Would all of it have happened if it had not been for the terrible memories of Chernobyl? How big is the damage in term of economy and technology that was caused by the nuclear lethargy?
In the US not a single reactor has been built fro 30 years since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. Some experts and publicists consider that this huge pause in the domestic development of the nuclear industry is a result of this very unpleasant though not fatal event at Three Mile Island plant, but there's little doubt that the fears created by that were multiplied manifold in the public mind after the Chernobyl catastrophe had taken place. Already frightened enough people just got an additional confirmation of their fears about nuclear generation, which got demonized ever after this in the mind of many. In the meantime developing Asia including China has little if any prejudices or fears about this source of power and is catching up at unbelievable speed with the West in terms of technology, alas. Yes, western traditional nuclear powers like France and US have continued to build new plants outside their borders, but in terms of technological development and competitiveness it was in part like jogging on the spot. Markets laws do play a role: on the one hand those external clients more often than not have been countries where nuclear technology has not been developed enough so that they were quite content with the existing level of proposed western designs (demand creates the supply), on the other hand with time western contractors helped quite a bit some countries get in the nuclear business and start its own technological development. For example, Westinghouse won a $5,3 billion contract in 2006 in China but the company paid a heavy price for this foray into the Chinese market because of a significant technology transfer. As a result, such countries like China and South Korea are turning from importers into exporters of nuclear technology and, consequently, into major competitors - competitors of our own making.
It is true, that the aforementioned existing circumstances - soaring price of oil and excessive dependence on foreign supplies - are slowly pushing the West towards a more rational and balanced attitude to nuclear generation, but this process is slow and bumpy, it well may be too little too late. Time sometimes heals, though slowly and often incompletely, but, perhaps, the energy sector would be now in a much better - qualitatively better shape, if the post-chernobyl syndrome had long before been addressed by the media, politicians and experts from various fields in a proper and timely fashion. The same goes for ecological and carbon emissions related achievements - the hot topic these days - which arguably are not possible for the present without building up the share of nuclear generation among other sources of energy.
Is it high time to recognize that it's the ghost of Chernobyl that has haunted the collective public mind for decades effectively preventing development of the nuclear energy sector, not ecology or the real safety issues? Isn't it time for intellectual elites in Western countries to recognize that the problem of nuclear stagnation must be primarily dealt with from a socio-psychological perspective, because the artificially induced social nuclearphobia has become one big restraining factor? That is not to say that ecological, safety and other aspects should not be addressed in a proper way, but it can be possible only after a large public debate is started in order to cure the nuclear hysteria which just prevents the public from rational and balanced consideration of all other sides, including multiple and unique advantages of applying nuclear technology and, what is more, developing it.