Thirty Years from Chernobyl to Fukushima: Things Have Changed

This week’s post uses a few lines from Things Have Changed as a small tribute to Bob Dylan having been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature…

Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose
Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose...
People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed...
Only a fool in here would think he’s got anything to prove...
I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road
If the Bible is right, the world will explode…

What if…?

[Japanese Prime Minister] Abe’s continuing concern for nuclear as well as conventional forces emerged at a private dinner the Abes gave during the state visit for Obama with the Secretary of State. The latter, in a memo to Obama written shortly afterward, documented for the president “the remarkable evening…at the Imperial Hotel… the liveliness of the conversation and the easy conviviality.” The Secretary was struck “by how deeply affected Abe appeared to be by the Fukushima accident. He commented that it was a great tragedy which cost Japan trillions of yen and had only been barely overcome through the tireless efforts of an enormous number of people. Abe noted with seemingly genuine horror the devastation that would occur if nuclear power plants became targets in a conventional war, much less a full nuclear exchange… It was obvious from that evening that Fukushima has left a strong anti-nuclear streak in Abe’s thinking.

If you have been following the Japanese government’s reaction to the Fukushima catastrophe, you recognized quickly that the paragraph above is a joke. The only Japanese prime minister who took the event seriously and understood its implications was Naoto Kan, and he was forced from office within a year. Since then, the two subsequent administrations of Noda and Abe have done everything in their power to deny the severity of the disaster in order to rehabilitate the domestic and international nuclear industry. The paragraph above was actually an adaptation of a real description of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reaction to the Chernobyl disaster which was written by Richard Rhodes in his book Arsenals of Folly:

Gorbachev’s continuing concern for nuclear as well as conventional forces emerged at a private dinner the Gorbachevs and the Shevardnadzes gave during the Moscow summit [1988] for the Reagans and the Shultzes. Shultz in a memo to Reagan written shortly afterward, documented for the president “the remarkable evening…at the Tsarist palace… the liveliness of the conversation and the easy conviviality.” He was struck, Shultz wrote, “by how deeply affected Gorbachev appeared to be by the Chernobyl accident. He commented that it was a great tragedy which cost the Soviet Union billions of rubles and had only been barely overcome through the tireless efforts of an enormous number of people. Gorbachev noted with seemingly genuine horror the devastation that would occur if nuclear power plants became targets in a conventional war, much less a full nuclear exchange… It was obvious from that evening that Chernobyl has left a strong anti-nuclear streak in Gorbachev’s thinking.[1]

The fake version of this paragraph, substituting the facts of the 1986 catastrophe with those of the one that happened in 2011, was made in order to highlight how hot the water in the pot is getting for humanity, the slow-cooking frogs who refer to themselves as homo sapiens (the wise creatures).
Gorbachev’s reaction seems to be what any sane and sensitive person should think and feel after leading his country through such a tragedy. It makes for a stark contrast with the normalization and denial of a nuclear catastrophe that we have seen since 2011, one that is arguably worse than Chernobyl in its long-term consequences.
It was so easy for the Western world in 1986 to pity those poor, backward communists and blame the disaster on the inefficient bureaucracies that lacked a profit motive to incentivize institutions to avoid costly mistakes. Capitalist ideology is so deeply ingrained that its captives cannot admit to the failure of the technology under their control. It wasn’t supposed to happen, so it didn’t happen. The strontium 90 can pour into the ocean for eternity, but if they believe this is inconsequential, then believing will make it so.
In this regard, Soviet communism, in spite of all its failings, still had a shred of decency within it. It was able to place some priorities above money, recognize the scale of the tragedy, and throw the necessary resources at the problem. This is not to say there were not horrific scandals regarding tainted food being shuffled around and diluted, or victims being abandoned by bureaucracies. In the official reaction to Chernobyl, however, at least we did not have to listen to Gorbachev glossing over the problem and see him pursuing a national vanity project such as bidding to host the 1996 Olympics. He took Chernobyl and all of his country’s problems seriously. Then again, we must remember that Gorbachev was punished for his decency and honesty, just like Naoto Kan. He was blamed by some for the downfall of the Soviet Union, and double-crossed by Boris Yeltsin in the autumn of 1991 in the chain of events that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, followed by Russia’s acquiescence to Western capitalism.
The description of Gorbachev’s worry about Chernobyl includes a mention of the “devastation that would occur if nuclear power plants became targets in a conventional war.” This is a danger that is seldom mentioned in discussions of the “safety” of nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants first came online in the 1960s-70s in the Soviet Union, Europe, North America and Northeast Asia. This was two to three decades after WWII, when these regions had become accustomed to peaceful relations with each other and memories of aerial bombardment had faded. They were not built in the regions of the world which were still in conflict. No one gave much thought to the danger of nuclear power plants being bombarded or targeted in terrorist attacks. However, it is notable that during this era Israel seemed to be aware of the risks when it chose to build nuclear weapons but not nuclear power plants. They didn’t want nuclear power plants to be targeted by their enemies, and they didn’t want the attention that comes from running a nuclear energy program. Doing so would have invited IAEA inspections and suspicions that the program would be used to produce fissile material for a bomb.
In truth, the governments which built nuclear power plants were always aware of the danger. They just preferred not to mention it in public debates about energy. The public could raise concerns about the costs, the possibility of accidents, the establishment of evacuation routes, and so on, and the government had semi-convincing answers for all of these issues, but a discussion of what would happen in wartime was off the table. It just wasn’t conceivable. It was, like a forty-meter tsunami, something that was “beyond expectation.”

Richard Rhodes’s next book, The Twilight of the Bombs, contains passages which indicate that nuclear plant hazards were very much on the minds of governments and military strategists in the late 1980s and early 1990s (and probably much earlier) when the US administrations of G.H.W. Bush and Clinton woke up to the fact that Iraq and North Korea had advanced nuclear weapons programs. Rhodes describes how in 1994 East Asia was on the brink of total war as some American military strategists, emboldened by the Gulf War “success,” expressed rather cavalier attitudes about the need to “take out” North Korea before it became too late eliminate its nuclear program:

Perry understood, Gallucci and his colleagues wrote, that "the United States could not fight a war in Korea without Japan. Bases in that country would be critical to support forces on the Korean Peninsula." At the same time, Japan recognized "the possibility of North Korean attacks [on Japan] using chemical or biological weapons or attempts to destroy the twenty-five nuclear reactors [on the Japanese coast] along the Sea of Japan, vulnerable to North Korean commando operations and missile attacks."
At a meeting with Clinton and his senior advisers on 19 May [1994], Perry, Luck, and the Joint Chiefs' chairman, John Shalikashvili, gave a tough-minded assessment of a war they believed they could win at great cost--without mentioning the cost. "When asked by the president at a different briefing whether the United States would win the war," Gallucci and his colleagues wrote, "General Luck replied, 'Yes, but at the cost of a million and a trillion.'" The million were military and civilian casualties killed or wounded; the trillion was the loss in dollars to the South Korean economy of a second Korean War. Standing against these grim statistics, Hecker pointed out, was the reality that the entire North Korean plutonium capability was still concentrated at Yongbyon, so that "at that time they still would have had the chance to destroy it all. If they bombed the reactor or bombed the reprocessing facility or bombed the spent fuel pool they would destroy the fuel rods, and the plutonium would be gone.
Why taking out or defending a plutonium-production facility in a country which had not yet tested a bomb would be worth thousands of American, hundreds of thousands of South Korean, and an unspecified number of North Korean and Japanese lives, no one in several governments involved has yet satisfactorily explained. Perry, with his former assistant secretary of defense Ashton Carter, attempted to do so in 2003 when another crisis mounted on the Korean Peninsula. The only reason the two former Pentagon officials could adduce, nine years later, that the North "must not be allowed to produce a series of nuclear bombs" was that "nuclear weapons might embolden [North Korea] to believe it could scare away the United States from defending the South, making war more likely." That was a repetition of Gallucci's "Model Two" argument, which of course depended entirely on how easily the United States, a superpower with more than ten thousand nuclear weapons in its arsenal, could be intimidated.[2]

It might be safe to assume that it was this calculus of deterrence that eventually led American leaders to come to their senses. The American president knew that the North Korean leader knew that North Korea would be hit with massive counter-strikes if it ever attacked with a nuclear weapon. Assuming that everyone was being kept in check was a much better option than an all-out war that would destroy Seoul (with conventional bombardment) and possibly lead to a regional conflagration. In spite of the need to talk tough for domestic audiences, the leaders of the US and neighboring nations had to tacitly concede that North Korea’s arsenal would be the same minimal deterrent that other nuclear-armed nations claimed rights to. For some reason it was alright to bomb Iraq back to the Stone Age, because oil and other issues were in play, but no one wanted to launch a purely pre-emptive adventure in Northeast Asia so close to friendly allies.
The passage above also contains a curious mention of the magical elimination of plutonium in a bombing raid. Rhodes wrote, “If they bombed the reactor or bombed the reprocessing facility or bombed the spent fuel pool they would destroy the fuel rods, and the plutonium would be gone.” That’s right: “the plutonium would be gone,” apparently. This obliviousness to extreme ecological hazards is on display in many studies that are focused on high-level strategic planning and the drama of executive level debates about nuclear strategies. They don’t discuss the plight of uranium miners, nuclear veterans, nuclear workers, or victims of nuclear testing. They ignore the radiological contamination that would follow from pre-emptive strikes on nuclear facilities, or from strikes on nuclear power plants.
     While political leaders were aware of the eternal ecological disaster caused by Chernobyl, they continued to talk glibly of shooting down missiles armed with nuclear warheads, striking nuclear missile silos, or bombing nuclear facilities before they produced nuclear weapons, as if the scattering of plutonium and uranium, as well as various other bomb ingredients, wouldn’t lead to widespread global contamination. Everyone thinks that plutonium would just “be gone.” Rhodes himself, in spite of having written four excellent books about the nuclear age and advocating strongly for nuclear disarmament, paid very little attention to the issue of the ecological contamination that occurs just in making, testing and possessing bombs, and in the bombing operations aimed at preventing the “bad guys” from getting them. Twilight of the Bombs contains a brief mention of environmental hazards in only one paragraph of the book.
In recent months there has been much talk of President Obama having floated the idea of the US adopting a no-first-use, or no-first-strike (the two terms are not equal), nuclear doctrine. He received little support within the American government, or from allies under the nuclear umbrella. The reaction showed that if “no-first-use/strike” had ever been the policy, nuclear arsenals may never have been appealing. Declaring no first use eliminates many of the useful purposes nuclear weapons can fulfill, short of dropping bombs on cities. An ambiguous policy is useful in itself, as it is good to keep adversaries guessing, but there are also some unusual and unexpected ways nuclear weapons could be used. Twilight of the Bombs contains an obscure anecdote that highlights one of the many ways military strategists could use nuclear weapons for some purpose besides destroying buildings and people: 

On 2 August [1990] the second day of the Iraqi invasion [of Kuwait], [General] Norman Schwarzkopf had mused aloud that his science adviser should investigate the feasibility of exploding a nuclear weapon in a high-altitude airburst over Iraq at the outset of a war to generate an electromagnetic pulse to short out Iraqi communications and missile launch controls. The Joint Chiefs would soon decide not to move nuclear weapons into the Persian Gulf, writes the intelligence analyst William Arkin—in any case, there were nuclear bombs stored at an American air base in southern Turkey, well within range of Baghdad—“but a variety of military organizations quietly began to examine nuclear options. Led by the ‘special weapons branch’ in the Operations Directorate and the office of the Scientific Advisor at Schwarzkopf’s headquarters, the Army staff, Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), Strategic Air Command (SAC) and the Department of Energy’s national laboratories all contributed proposals.”[3]

If a high-altitude nuclear airburst could seem like a reasonable thing to do just because it wouldn’t kill people or destroy cities, then it is easy to imagine other “tolerable” uses of nuclear weapons. They could be used for the purpose of geoengineering to open up or close routes of navigation in enemy territory, or to poison a water or food supply. A very low-yield detonation, appearing not much larger than that of a conventional bomb, might be useful in certain circumstances. One can easily find corners of the internet where there is talk of such weapons having already been used.
There is a certain complacency in the world that has come from knowing that nuclear weapons have never been used in wartime since 1945. We like to think there is a thick red line that no one would dare cross, but these unconventional and unexpected uses of nuclear weapons raise new questions. Why did we think nuclear testing wasn’t an abominable crime? What are the rules, and who decides what event would be the crossing of that line? It is difficult to say that a low-yield detonation or a high-altitude airburst would be worse than the scattering of depleted uranium all over Iraq that has actually occurred. The international community should already be outraged enough to ban these weapons, but the tolerance we have shown so far indicates that we might tolerate worse things yet to come. We used to care, but things have changed.


[1] Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (New York: Vintage, 2007), 268.

[2] Richard Rhodes, The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospect of a World without Nuclear Weapons (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 195-196.

[3] Ibid, 30.

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