Nearly 25 years after it was the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, the concrete-encased ruins of the Chernobyl reactor remain a disputed symbol, their legacy contested terrain in the battle over the future of atomic power.
The argument about Chernobyl’s legacy looms over the 25th anniversary of the accident next month — and presages a long and likely contentious assessment of the catastrophe that continues to unfold at Japan’s earthquake-stricken nuclear plants.
Anti-nuclear campaigners have used the Chernobyl reactor — where plans for a new shell to bury the melted radioactive core are being delayed by a shortage of international cash — as a rallying point for their all-out opposition to nuclear power and a symbolic warning of its dangers.
“It has been used by fear mongers ever since the accident to frighten people about nuclear power here [in the United States],” said Thomas Kauffman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry advocacy group. “Time and time again, it is brought up” by critics of the industry.
He noted that in Japan, the massive containment domes that house the reactor cores at the stricken plants remain intact.
It was the absence of such a dome over reactor 4 at Chernobyl, he said, that allowed the release of tons of radioactive fuel and fission products into the environment.
The April 26, 1986, meltdown — the result of an unauthorized experimental procedure being run at the plant — caused a fire in the core that burned for 10 days, released clouds of radioactive smoke and dust, and brought a screeching halt worldwide to plans to expand the nuclear industry.
Over the past decade, many governments around the world, including the United States, have begun looking again to nuclear energy as a carbon-free alternative to fossil fuels.
The nuclear industry’s defenders say that modern reactors are built to much more rigorous standards than Chernobyl.
Industry advocates also say that initial estimates of the impact of the Chernobyl disaster might have overstated the long-term consequences. Mr. Kauffman highlighted a 2006 U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that described early predictions of tens or even hundreds of thousands of deaths from radiation as “highly exaggerated.”
The report predicted up to 4,000 possible additional cancer fatalities — a 4 percent increase — among those in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus affected by the radioactive fall-out from the explosion and fire.
But it said only a few dozen deaths — almost half of them from acute radiation sickness in the early days of the disaster — definitively could be linked to it.
Damon Moglen, director of the climate and energy project at environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, told The Washington Times that the IAEA report was “disgraceful.”
“Thousands have died,” he said, citing different figures produced by the World Health Organization. “People are still dying.”