Industrial disasters: Serious, and Very Serious

Late at night on the 2nd of December 1984, one of the world’s largest industrial disasters took place in Bhopal, India, exposing around half a million people to deadly chemicals. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, as many as 10,000 people lost their lives. Since then, a further 15,000 people have died from illnesses caused by gases released, while more than 100,000 others are believed still to suffer from related diseases. As we mark the 25th anniversary of this disaster, it reminds us of the need for proper controls and rigorous safety procedures in dangerous industrial processes.
Yet this anniversary notwithstanding, Bhopal gets relatively little media attention  By comparison, we seem to hear constantly about the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which happened seventeen months later, in April 1986.  The deep-green anti-nuclear lobby is always banging on about Chernobyl, as an awful warning against those who advocate a new nuclear building programme.
Yet according to the WHO, as late as mid-2005 — nearly two decades after the disaster — only 50 deaths could be attributed to Chernobyl .  Admittedly the same report suggested that up to 4000 more could eventually die as a result of radiation exposure, but the mid-2005 death toll was only fifty.
Of course fifty deaths are a serious matter, and should not be trivialised.  Yet they pale into insignificance against Bhopal’s 10,000 dead and 100,000 damaged.  I hear no one calling for the closure of the chemical industry because of Bhopal, yet there are green NGOs demanding an end to nuclear power because of the very much lower toll at Chernobyl.
The Greens also conveniently forget that the Chernobyl reactor was a very old, fifties-style Soviet design, poorly maintained, as most industrial infrastructure was poorly maintained in Eastern Europe.  It makes as much sense to compare the Chernobyl reactor, and its risk profile, with a modern nuclear power plant as it would to compare an East German Trabant with a modern BMW.
Other than Chernobyl, there have been almost no fatalities associated with nuclear power plants.  That is an extraordinary statistic for a major, mainstream, base-load power generation technology, especially when you recall that hundreds of thousands have died over the years in the coal industry, and in hydro accidents.
Far from being dangerous, nuclear power is by far the safest mainstream generating technology we have.
As our Labour government starts to press ahead with new nuclear capacity — better late than never — we will no doubt hear the name of Chernobyl shouted from the rooftops by green campaigners.  When you hear that word, remember mining disasters, remember hydro accidents, remember Bhopal.

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2 Responses to Industrial disasters: Serious, and Very Serious

  1. Pingback: Are nuclear accidents more serious than other industrial accidents? — Communicatom

  2. Laura says:

    Thank you for this very good point Mr Helmer,
    That’s very interesting from a communications point of view. One could argue that Bhopal is too far away from Europe and that people’s sensitivity depends on distances. Chernobyl was much closer and what struck public opinion is that it affected the entire European continent. Well, then what about the Ghislenghien accident in Belgium or the explosion of the AZF factory in Toulouse, France. That’s pretty close, isn’t it?

    What can account for the fact that nuclear accidents are perceived as more serious than other industrial accidents whatever the actual casualties? The sociologist, Mr d’Iribarne, who conducted a study on “the French and radioactive waste” found that the terms “radioactive” and “nuclear” convey irrational fears. Nuclear power is considered almost as something supernatural on which mankind has hardly any control. People’s perception of nuclear accidents derives maybe from these irrational fears. Of course it is always better for the media to tell scary stories with the word “nuclear” than to talk about the more neutral chemical industry. It is more likely to sell newspapers or increase the audience.
    I posted an article on my blog: which mentions your post.

    Thanks again for triggering a healthy controversy!

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