The name “Chernobyl” has been somewhat synonymous with the dark side of nuclear energy – death and destruction.
Just last month, HBO released a trailer for its new miniseries, Chernobyl, offering a dramatized glimpse into the 1986 nuclear disaster that rocked the former Soviet Union, the result of which created an exclusion zone of about 1,000 square miles around the site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
The images in the trailer would suggest the resulting death toll to be in the thousands, but Kennesaw State University nuclear engineering professor Eduardo Farfan says looks can be deceiving.
“An amazing fact that is often obscured by fear and lack of knowledge is, fewer than 60 people have died from the Chernobyl accident in the 33 years since the disaster,” says Farfan, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering and has conducted extensive research at the site during his tenure with the Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory.
“An amazing fact that is often obscured by fear and lack of knowledge is, fewer than 60 people have died from the Chernobyl accident in the 33 years since the disaster.”Eduardo Farfan, nuclear engineering professor at Kennesaw State University
He’s seen firsthand the terrible consequences of a nuclear disaster, having worked on several projects with Ukrainian scientists at the Chernobyl Center in Slavutych, Ukraine. Despite this, Farfan still believes nuclear power is safe and should remain a top option to cope with climate change.
He says that the main cause of the Chernobyl accident was found to be human error and incompetence. Between April 25 and 26, the power plant conducted a simulated blackout, during which operators disobeyed a testing checklist. This triggered a series of events that led reactor No. 4 to explode, releasing massive quantities of radioactive material to spread across modern-day Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and other European countries.
“The Soviet design of the reactor also played a critical role in the disaster,” Farfan says. “Reactors here in the U.S. have been designed to safely shut down in similar circumstances. In addition, U.S. reactors are encased inside a reinforced steel containment building designed to capture all radioactive materials in the event of an emergency.”
Accidents like Chernobyl aren’t the only things that can sway the public opinion on nuclear energy, he adds. Many incorrectly associate the nuclear power industry with the production of nuclear weapons. The reality is, several major scientific journals have found nuclear power to be the safest method of producing reliable energy.
According to the World Nuclear Association, the U.S. is the largest producer of nuclear power, and for the first time in more than 30 years, two new reactors are currently being constructed on American soil. While the country hasn’t been immune to nuclear scares of its own, with the 1979 partial meltdown and radiation leak at Three Mile Island, Farfan says your mind should be at ease.
“No member of the public has ever been injured or killed in the entire 50-year history of commercial nuclear power in the U.S.,” he says. “In fact, recent studies have shown that it is safer to work in a nuclear power plant than an office.”