Scott Sumner  

Was Chernobyl the best thing that ever happened to Europe's environment?

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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.


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COMMENTS (36 to date)
LK Beland writes:

"It's very expensive."

Only in the US. In other countries with smarter regulation and less balkanized energy/vendor markets, the cost can be much, much lower. This includes Canada, BTW. In some sense, this is a testament to America's inability to develop many modern infrastructures.

http://www.vox.com/2016/2/29/11132930/nuclear-power-costs-us-france-korea

LK Beland writes:

Of course, from a global perspective, nuclear is certainly gaining traction in China and India (i.e. the two most important places in the world from a climate change perspective). The US is a bit of an outlier because of the combination of awful regulation and fracking.

Unlearning writes:

I don't think environmentalists only care about 'the environment' in itself. They care about humans and our species' continued existence (and they see global warming as threatening this). Therefore they do not see an area which is inhabited by abundant wildlife but has deadly consequences for humans as a desirable outcome.

benj writes:

The "Greens" aren't really interested in the environment. They merely use it as a cover to stop technology and progress in general, which they hate.

Similarly, "Socialists" are not really interested in reducing inequality or poverty. They merely use them as an excuse to tax the earned incomes and capital of others, in order to build a large and overweening state apparatus. They are control freaks.

As, for "Conservatives" they aren't interested in wealth creation or economic efficiency. For them, Socialism is a convenient smokescreen that helps deflect attention from the root causes of excessive inequality. While high taxes on income and capital are bad, they are infinitely better than the removal of monopoly privileges in Land and intellectual property.

RPLong writes:

What Chernobyl illustrates is not that "nuclear disasters are good for the environment," but rather that the presence of humans is bad for the environment.

This seems profound, at first. Then we realize that "the environment" is, by definition, every aspect of nature, excluding humans. Of course the environment will thrive in absence of the "not-environment."

The other point to make here is that plant and animal life is subject to hideous deformations caused by high levels of radiation, too. So, sure, terrible levels of radiation can be great for the moose population, but for the individual moose it's equally as miserable as it would be if you decided to go live in the dead zone yourself. It sure is hard to call that a "win."

Benjamin R Kennedy writes:

(channeling environmentalists)

Nuclear power produces toxic waste. Nuclear power isn't suitable for all areas. Nuclear power distracts from renewable energy research, which is the real long term solution to energy needs. Nuclear power is inextricably linked to nuclear weapons that can doom us all.

Scott Sumner writes:

LK, It's even more expensive in the UK.

You said:

"The US is a bit of an outlier because of the combination of awful regulation and fracking."

Not sure I agree. Europe and Japan are also turning away from nuclear. I think China is the outlier.

Unlearning, You said:

"I don't think environmentalists only care about 'the environment' in itself. They care about humans and our species' continued existence (and they see global warming as threatening this)."

But this should make environmentalists even MORE pro-nuclear.

As for human life, everyone cares about that. What makes environmentalists special is that also care about animals and plants, for their own sake (not just as beneficial to humans). So I'd expect them to be more pro-nuclear than other groups.

RP Long, You said:

"So, sure, terrible levels of radiation can be great for the moose population, but for the individual moose it's equally as miserable as it would be if you decided to go live in the dead zone yourself."

I don't agree. The huge gain in wild animal populations more than compensates for the occasional health problem.

LD Bottorff writes:

The extent of the Chernobyl disaster is a testament to the power of an unaccountable government. The Soviet state wanted nuclear power and there were no incentives for proper regulation. Thus, there was no requirement for an appropriate containment structure. Democratic governments are more likely to impose regulations. Our Nuclear Regulatory Commission may be too zealous, and France may regulate their nuclear industry too lightly, but clearly the RBMK reactor design, without a containment structure, was unsafe. We had our own uncontained reactors at Hanford, but they were a testament to the urgency of war.

Capt. J Parker writes:

The U.N. predicted a human apocalypse from Chernobyl that never happened. The scaremongering is still happening for Fukashima but as yet there hasn't been a single radiation death from Fukashima. Perhaps there is some sanity in the world. WSJ says some environmental groups are once again warming to the idea of nuclear power as means of combating global warming.

jc writes:

Why are they against it? Inertia?

It was once a sin. And that's enough for the moral condemnation script to kick in, even today: You must condemn sins (and punish tribe members who don't [condemn sins/sinners] even more strongly than you punish actual sinners).

I remember noticing that some prominent activists were starting to openly admit that they were wrong about nuclear, that we should embrace it. Then Fukushima happened...

Robert writes:

Chernobyl was, and still is, an environmental disaster. Plant and animal life contain toxic levels of radiation. Animals are still found with severe deformities. I'm disappointed that anyone would consider the Chernobyl disaster good for the environment.

LK Beland writes:

"Not sure I agree. Europe and Japan are also turning away from nuclear. I think China is the outlier."

Sweden has recently decided to construct 10 new reactors to replace their old ones. Also, they have finally decided to stop levying a tax on nuclear (about 0.01$/kWh) to finance "renewables". They cost under 0.04$/kWh to operate, BTW.

As for Britain, new nuclear is still one of the cheaper ways to produce electricity there:
http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/economic-aspects/economics-of-nuclear-power.aspx

You'll also notice that the nuclear costs are especially attractive when you apply a low discount rate. In this low-rate future that the markets predict, one might want to apply a low discount rate, making nuclear especially attractive.

RPLong writes:

Prof. Sumner, I'm really surprised that you'd say you disagree with me, considering how I phrased the sentence you quoted. But in that case, I have a follow up question for you:

The larger animal population at a dangerously radioactive disaster site compensates whom with what?

Ted Sanders writes:

Very thought-provoking piece. Since you explicitly asked for feedback on where you may have gone wrong, I'll offer some thoughts:

(1) Displacement effects. Even if the Chernobyl region is better off after humans evacuate it, these humans haven't stopped hurting the environment. Now they're just doing it elsewhere.

(2) Rebuilding effects. Furthermore, since the evacuees now need a new stock of housing and other capital, the environment will take some extra damage as this new capacity is rebuilt.

(3) Energy portfolio effects. Even if Chernobyl itself was good for the environment, it clearly slowed the growth of nuclear power (for a variety of reasons, many of which were not environmental). Slowing the growth of nuclear power could be a net loss for the environment in the long-run.

I don't think any of these three ideas necessarily imply that you're wrong, but they do make the analysis murkier.

And of course, we could go deeper. For example, argument (1) could be rebutted by considering that the evacuation probably increased population density in nearby regions, and high human population density is good for the environment (given a fixed population).

Anyway, I find the idea thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing it.

Ted Sanders writes:

Further thoughts:

The reason your conclusion seems surprising is that normally we think of disasters as bad, but if we benchmark Chernobyl in terms of environmental damage, it actually looks good.

However, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised. In general, human development is at odds with the preservation of the environment. Because most disasters slow or reverse human development, it might be that most disasters, even those that are nominally bad for the environment, end up being good for the environment once you calculate the toll on human development.

Lastly, while environmental preservation is a worthy goal, it certainly shouldn't be pursued or analyzed in isolation. A murderer probably has a more beneficial effect on the environment than you or me, but murder violates many moral/social/legal norms and hurts the world in ways that aren't compensated by the environmental gain. I wonder if it is similarly a mistake to judge Chernobyl along an environmental axis in isolation.*

*though to be fair, it does not sound like that's your argument. My impression is that you are pointing out that it doesn't make sense to oppose nuclear power on environmental grounds alone. I guess my comment is directed more at a plausible extension of where this argument might go.

Miguel Madeira writes:

I suspect that the first and the second practical applications of nuclear power were very bad marketing for that kind of energy.

Gordon writes:

When people don't have an in depth understanding of a topic, they evaluate issues within that topic intuitively and emotionally. Look at how the general public keeps supporting nonsensical economic policies. People have an immediate negative gut reaction to the word nuclear while failing to understand that we live close enough to a gigantic nuclear reactor whose radiation is strong enough that we can all feel it. And don't forget that people's gut reaction to the word nuclear caused Nuclear Magnetic Resonance devices to be renamed Magnetic Resonance Imaging devices.

Miguel Madeira writes:

About environmentalists and nuclear power - I suspect that are a kind of "mood afiliation":

a) a strong overlap between environmentalists and pacifists; because, as pacifists, they are against nuclear weapons, they are also against nuclear power

b) also, a strong overlap between environmentalists and the 1960s New Left, with a "small is beautiful" ideology (in contrast with the "big is beautiful" of the Old Left); at least as it works today, nuclear power has big economies of scale; in contrast solar power (fusion nuclear power imported from the Sun...) seems to be the best source of power for an isolated community living in some remote hills.

Don Geddis writes:

The idea that "lack of humans" is the dominating factor for wildlife to thrive, is a wonderful counterintuitive result that happens elsewhere too. The DMZ between North and South Korea has also, over the last few decades, become an accidental very high quality nature preserve. For no other reason than, humans are essentially prohibited from being there (for political / war / conflict reasons).

P.S. Robert: you're still apparently missing the point. Humans living near animal populations cause vastly MORE damage to them, than the radiation does to the species. Yes, we all know that the wildlife would do even better with the absence of both humans and radiation. But that is not a feasible choice in the real world, for that area. The real choice is: (1) humans and no radiation; or (2) no humans and some radiation. And the evidence is overwhelming: wildlife does MUCH better overall, without humans around, even if it needs to endure a little radiation in order to make the humans go away.

pgbh writes:

This sort of stuff is why I enjoy reading your posts.

Scott Sumner writes:

Robert, Read the articles I linked to. Lots of experts say it helped the environment in the area around the power plant. Do you have more expertise than those experts? What do you know that they do not? The articles do mention the health costs to animals, but indicate that the disaster was a net plus despite those costs. Why is their reasoning wrong? Just because it sounds unconventional?

LK, You said:

"As for Britain, new nuclear is still one of the cheaper ways to produce electricity there"

I think many people in the UK might regard this as a bad joke, given the Hinkley Point fiasco.

And Sweden is a small country; nuclear power is declining in much of Europe.

RP, I'm saying it's good for all the wild animals that live there today, but would not have even been alive if not for the disaster. Why is that reasoning incorrect?

Ted, Good points.

Todd Kreider writes:

The negative effects from what were small amounts of radiation apart from right at the site had been wildly exaggerated by the mainstream press via environmental groups for the past 30 years.

Americans, who mostly stopped taking science classes after age 16 or maybe 17, have usually learned about radiation risks through T.V.shows like Gilligan's Island (Mary Ann ate the radioactive carrots giving her super vision) and later The Simpsons. I imagine it can be hard to unlearn what you knew was true through a TV show or a movie.

At the same time, knlowledge about radiation risks increased dramatically since the 1940s when it was first assumed without any physical evidence that tiny levels of radiation could cause cancer. A slew of studies in the 1980s and early 1990s showed this was false and Health Physics organizations in the U.S. and France among others stated the "all radiation levels are potentially cancer causing" over regulation needs to end. In the U.S., liberals have been the most opposed to listening to the health physicists.

But for many years, a significant minority (maybe 40%) of radiation health physicists claim that lower levels of radiation found in Denver (3 times the U.S.average) and even higher reduce cancer rates in those areas including near the Fukushima plants.

But as someone wrote, wildlife flourishes where people no longer live.

Don Alamo writes:
I'm saying it's good for all the wild animals that live there today, but would not have even been alive if not for the disaster. Why is that reasoning incorrect?

Because their lives are not worth living. Yes, they have many minor pleasures, but they also have many minor frustrations, and they get eaten alive all the time. Also, bone cancer without pain management is probably not fun.

Nathan W writes:

I thought the concern about nuclear was the essentially infinite (for human time frames) period of time that the radioactive waste needs to be managed. Actually, I've never heard an environmentalist whose concerns about nuclear revolve around the risk of immediate catastrophe.

In my extensive exposure with environmentalists, discussions around nuclear don't tend to be framed in a highly empirical cost-benefit analysis. It's more like "we don't know how long we're going to have to pay for this and are building up massive amounts of radioactive waste for future generations, and in the long-term it means a big problem, so let's not even go there."

However, since renewable technologies are improving in cost efficiency with every passing year, I think more environmentalists should be more open to considering nuclear as a short- to medium-term solution for energy. In 50 years time or so, renewables will probably be more cost effective than either nuclear or fossil fuels for most uses (aviation probably still excepted).

RPLong writes:

Prof. Sumner:

RP, I'm saying it's good for all the wild animals that live there today, but would not have even been alive if not for the disaster. Why is that reasoning incorrect?

I don't think that reasoning is incorrect, but the statement I made, which you said you disagreed with, does not call that reasoning into question. Are you sure you really disagree with what I said?

Mark Bahner writes:
People have an immediate negative gut reaction to the word nuclear while failing to understand that we live close enough to a gigantic nuclear reactor whose radiation is strong enough that we can all feel it.

As far as I know, no environmentalist objects to nuclear reactors being constructed 93 million miles from earth. ;-)

Todd Kreider writes:
It's more like "we don't know how long we're going to have to pay for this and are building up massive amounts of radioactive waste for future generations, and in the long-term it means a big problem, so let's not even go there."

But each part of the above is wrong. Environmentalists are mostly talking to each other so don't have to actually think about the science and economics of nuclear waste storage. The issue is just a NIMBY political issue.

Scott Sumner writes:

Everyone, Lots of good comment, sorry I didn't have time to answer them all.

On nuclear waste, I don't see what's wrong with underground storage in areas not prone to earthquakes. And I don't find the 10,000 years issue very troublesome. I figure that within 200 years humans will have either destroyed the planet or advanced to far that the nuclear storage issue is utterly trivial. Perhaps the material will be recycled in more advanced reactors, for instance.

But I'm not trying to argue in favor of nuclear power; I'm not sure about the cost issue. It's just that on environmental grounds (global warming) it seems like a plus.

Don, You said:

"Also, bone cancer without pain management is probably not fun."

Look, starvation is one of the most unpleasant ways to die, and wild animals starve all the time, even in a well functioning ecosystem. I claim that only a very small proportion of animals get bone cancer. Do you have evidence that I am wrong?

RP, Perhaps I read too much into your comment. I agree that the individual moose that gets sick is worse off. I thought you were implying that moose as a group are worse off, because the fraction that get sick more than compensate for the higher number of healthy moose.

Sorry if I misinterpreted your comment.

Don Alamo writes:
Look, starvation is one of the most unpleasant ways to die, and wild animals starve all the time, even in a well functioning ecosystem.

Scott, your original argument was that Chernobyl was good for these animals because they would not have been alive otherwise. But this requires that their lives are worth living. The unpleasantness of starvation (and other agonizing forms of death) is reason to believe that their lives are not worth living. This applies both to the Chernobyl zone and well functioning ecosystems. The alternative before Chernobyl was human land use with fewer suffering animals. Therefore, the accident harmed these animals.

Benjamin Cole writes:

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are working cities today and have been for decades.

Why are people so afraid of nuclear bombs?

RAD writes:

Some thoughts/facts:


  • when it comes to lifetime risks due to invisible radiation or toxins, I think most people prefer zero exposure

  • the likelihood of core meltdown turned out to be much much higher than anticipated in boiling water reactors due to explosions caused by the hydrogen produced by hot zirconium clad fuel rods being exposed to air

  • the negative health side effects of radiation released after a nuclear accident turned out to be much much lower than anticipated, mostly treatable thyroid cancer in children exposed to the short-lived radiation in the first few days after an accident (and preventable with Ki pills which are distributed after accidents)

  • because people prefer zero exposure, human land-use in the large swaths of land exposed to radiation falls to zero, the success of the Chernobyl ecosystem is not an issue of human environmental damage, its one of uninhabited land


It is a complex non-linear problem and I don't think greenhouse gas emissions nor negative health impact after an accident are the determinant factor, the cost/liability of abandoned land after an accident is. If a power plant owner/operator had to assume liability for land exposed after an accident, the projects would never fly, especially with the best alternative being a natural gas power plant since the fracking revolution. The tough question is nuclear vs. coal in a growing area without a good natural gas supply.

Todd Kreider writes:

@ RAD:

* Americans get their science through the Bible and movies. (This includes many PhDs.)
People may prefer zero radiation levels unless they have seen the studies from the early 1980s that show if in such an extreme area, mammals soon die as their immune system breaks down.

* In the case o Fukushima, nuclear experts thought some level of meltdown was possible by Day 3. But "meltdowns" (not considered a technical term in the industry) are of no risk to the public.

* again, the actual experts were saying on 3/12 that no one in the public exposed to radiation would die from that. And they were not surprisingly correct.

RAD writes:

There were radiation related deaths in Fukushima, Todd?

Todd Kreider writes:


No, and radiation experts tried to explain that no one will die from radiation early on, but they were greatly outnumbered by environmentalists who were interviewed by the media.

Anti-nuke Princeton physicist Frank von Hippel used the out dated Linear No Threshold hypothesis to estimate if no evacuation (which there was) then 1200 would die from radiation
due to the accident at Fukushima.

Berkeley physicist Richar Muller was confident LNT was correct in 2006 when giving a lecture on radiation health to his students, shown on a youtube video. But when he wrote an op-ed for the Wall St. Jnl., he used a "Denver standard" instead of LNT. That is, anyone in Japan exposed to radiation levels just a bit above those at Denver, Co. yet still 10 times lower than where health physicist mostly agree cancer risks begin, was at a certain risk of dying from cancer.

His estimate was that 100 Japanese would die from elevated radiation levels. But the U.S. Health Physics Society states that is too low a threshold. Instead, they state you can't count cancer risks until at 5 times higher than Denver, or in the case of Fukushima, zero deaths.

Also, keep in mind that it is assumed half who get cancer will die from it. That is true in 2016, but apart from childhood thyroid cancer, which appears about 4 years later, other cancers would not appear until closer to 2040. How many will die of any cancer in 2040? Around zero.





RAD writes:

Ah... thanks for clarifying your position, Todd, your statement that experts were saying that no one would die and "they were not surprisingly correct" can be parsed two ways.

Decades later, the radiation death tally in Chernobyl is about 50 people, unfortunately including 9 children who died of thyroid cancer (4000 total childhood cases, all but the 9 were cured). Nearly all of the radiation deaths could have been prevented and there is no reason to believe that Fukushima will be higher than zero.

That said, the relocation impact on the local population was serious, both short term (moving sick hospital patients) and the long term mental health trauma.

Its the relocation impact I was emphasizing but I guess the continued misinformation about the radiation impact is the tragic part.

Mark Bahner writes:
The unpleasantness of starvation (and other agonizing forms of death) is reason to believe that their lives are not worth living. This applies both to the Chernobyl zone and well functioning ecosystems. The alternative before Chernobyl was human land use with fewer suffering animals. Therefore, the accident harmed these animals.

OK, so let's shoot them all, and wall off the 1600+ square mile exclusion zone so that no more animals can get in to suffer. :-)

P.S. Donald Trump tells me if he was handling the operation, he'd make sure the animals pay for the wall. ;-)

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