Few things haunt our modern nightmares as terrifyingly as nuclear disasters – and though it began a full 37 years ago today, the Chernobyl catastrophe still casts a long shadow over the debate about whether nuclear power can ever be safe.
The threat of another nuclear accident in Europe was driven home last year when Russian soldiers occupied the “exclusion zone” around the Chernobyl plant for more than five weeks, possibly suffering from radiation poisoning.
And the world is also anxiously watching Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which has only narrowly escaped heavy bombardment by Russian forces.
Events in Ukraine aside, different countries take different views on the future of nuclear power. Germany committed to shutting its nuclear grid down entirely after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and completed the process this spring, but millions of Europeans today live within striking distance of at least one nuclear power plant.
Whenever the spectre of Chernobyl is revived – whether by war or by a critically acclaimedtelevision series – people invevitably start asking themselves what will happen if something goes wrong.
Local advice in Europe
Residents near the Royal Navy base in Portsmouth, England, have received detailed advice from the local council about what to do in the event of a nuclear accident.
They’re told that while any nuclear accident would likely be small and contained within the base — and in no way resemble a nuclear bomb explosion — people could still be exposed to radioactive particles or have contact with contaminated surfaces, food or drinking water.
“The main way to stay safe is to stay inside with your windows and doors shut, then none of the radioactive particles can reach you,” the local council advises.
“Close all your doors and windows to reduce the risk of contamination entering the building. Switch off fans, ventilation equipment or appliances such as central heating boilers and gas fires, which draw air from outside,” the council says.
People are also encouraged to listen to the radio or check online for the latest news, but to try and not use mobile phones in case all the calls overload the network.
In France, the government’s preparedness instructions for a nuclear accident note that they’re ranked on a scale from 1 to 7, with seven being equal to Chernobyl.
There are 56 nuclear power stations in France, and in the event of an accident the government advises people to have an emergency kit prepared with copies of important papers and any medicines; along with clothes, food and water.
People are told to take shelter indoors — with the windows closed — and take iodine tablets to counteract any radiation poisoning.
Meanwhile in Spain, where seven nuclear power plants generate around 20% of the Iberian country’s energy, the government has produced advice in a dozen different languages in case of an emergency.
“The best way to stay safe in any radiation emergency is to get inside, stay inside and stay tuned. Putting material between you and the radiation provides protection while you tune in for instructions from responders,” Spanish authorities advise.
And in Sweden, with six reactors in three nuclear power plants, authorities have produced advice which tells people that “Preparedness means being prepared for the unexpected… and being able to minimise the consequences of an accident.”
The instructions say to keep a good distance from the source of the radiation, be in the contaminated area for as little time as possible, a to keep a shield between yourself and the radiation source, for example, by being indoors.
Older nuclear plants pose more risks
Fortunately, it’s quite unlikely that Europeans will find themselves exposed to radiation after an accident at a power station — although not totally impossible.
What made the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl so disastrous was the combination of poor design, subpar safety practices, a mismanaged test and the confusion of information after the event, and most of these factors are not present when it comes to the modern nuclear energy sector in Europe.
Still, that hasn’t stopped Europeans from trying to work out what might happen to them if a disaster were to occur somewhere on the continent.
Scientists at Geneva’s Institut Biosphère looked in detail at the damage that might result from an accident at one of Switzerland’s five nuclear plants, among them the oldest still-operating reactor in the world, Benzau I.
According to their findings, a Swiss meltdown could potentially affect 16-24 million Europeans, depending on the weather, with thousands of radiation-related deaths beyond Switzerland’s borders.
Some countries are already worrying about the threat of nuclear spillage from their neighbours, and indeed, dealing with it. Britain’s oldest reactor, the now-decommissioned Sellafield, has been a running sore for decades: a fire in 1957 sent radioactive particles into the air to be detected in Scandinavia and Germany; waste was dumped and inadvertently discharged into the Irish Sea on more than one occasion.
Today, the incredibly intricate cleanup operation that remains underway at the site costs the British state as much as €2.25 billion a year, and carries significant risks that further radioactive waste will be released into seawater that Ireland, Iceland and northwest Europe in general will have to cope with.
When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan was damaged by a tsunami in 2021, the Japanese authorities evacuated everyone in a 20km radius around it, meaning 109,000 people were displaced while tens of thousands more left nearby areas of their own volition.
But when British researchers William Nuttall and Philip Thomas ran an experiment to see what would be necessary if a similar disaster happened in southern England, they calculated that the evacuation would only need to involve a nearby village.
Chernobyl’s design and the neglect of safety protocols were the reason for the massive radiation release; more modern reactors, which are built with containment vessels, do not generally pose the same level of risk.
You may not be asked — or forced — to leave anyway. As the researchers pointed out, the upheaval of long-term mass evacuation can present public health problems in itself.
“The World Health Organization documented the upheaval of the Chernobyl disaster among the relocated community and found a legacy of depression and alcoholism,” they wrote for The Conversation. “Across the population, a rise in suicide and substance abuse can shorten evacuees’ lives far more than might have been lost to radiation in their old homes. Similar evidence is starting to emerge from Fukushima, especially for male suicide.”
For now, the overall nuclear trend in Europe is unclear, but the sector is not going away. With decommissioning on hold in various places, countries such as Finland are switching on new reactors to plug the energy gap left by Russia’s energy politics – meaning their citizens will be living with reactors designed to run for a half-century or more.