From Chernobyl to Fukushima

After almost 70 years of civilian use, the various accidents that have marked the history of nuclear energy reveal our inability to control the power of the atom fully. A look at the weakness of the civilian nuclear power industry.


The health and environmental risks posed by radioactivity were not revealed until relatively late in the history of atomic power. In the 1920s and 30s, radioactivity was seen as a miracle remedy rather than a lethal substance because of the progress it achieved in the field of medicine and the unshakable faith in the alliance between science and technology that the Industrial Revolution gave the Western world.

Advertising poster for the energizing drink Zoé (1950)

Only once the first cancers were diagnosed and attributed to daily contact with radioactivity did its dangerousness come to light, especially in the watchmaking industry in the town of Bienne, Switzerland. At the end of WWII, the devastation caused by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki raised the first ethical questions. At once apocalyptic and divine, the atom recalled the fire granted to mankind by Prometheus, as well as the ensuing question: would mankind one day deserve such power?

The control of its devastating power presupposes the infallible safety of the technology used to prevent inevitable human errors as well as political stability and wisdom. The interdependence of these three factors renders our ability to respond to technical failures that much more difficult.

The assertion of total control over nuclear power that was made from the outset to justify a mass recourse to this form of energy resurfaces in the statements made by authorities after an accident. However, we have gradually shifted from “accidents are impossible” before 1986 to “there is no such thing as zero risk” after Fukushima.

Accidents, a sure bet

In fact, accidents have continuously marked the almost 70-year history of our use of the atom. Since the early 1950s, one major accident involving the functioning of a reactor has occurred almost every year, and sometimes several times a year on a global scale.


The cause is the increase in the number of nuclear reactors, which multiplies the probability of such accidents. There are 58 reactors in France alone, which currently provide more than 75% of the electricity consumed domestically. The frequency of these accidents testifies to the impossibility of controlling nuclear power completely, but generally only accidents that have major health and environmental consequences attract any attention and periodically result in a questioning of the model.



In 1957, at the same time that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created within the UN and President Eisenhower’s famous “Atoms for Peace” speech had subtly begun to affect energy policies in Western countries, the first nuclear catastrophe occurred, but in the greatest silence. In Kychtym in the Soviet Union, a reservoir containing several dozen tons of nuclear waste exploded.

The accident suspected by Western authorities was only publicly disclosed in 1980 by Jaurès Medvedev. The opacity with which the USSR managed this accident did not provoke any doubts among the politicians, administrators, and civilian populations of countries who had opted for nuclear energy. This opacity in managing accidents is not unique to the USSR. The majority of accidents at reactors in Western countries, though smaller in size, have been managed in a similar fashion. Operators continue to boast how safe their infrastructure is because it combines modern technology and the latest scientific expertise.

Civilian nuclear energy thus benefited from the general public’s great trust. The consequences of nuclear accidents were ignored and their risk was estimated to be minimal. 20 years after the explosion at Kychtym, the accident on March 28, 1979 at the Three Mile Island plant finally began to chip away at the commonly held belief that nuclear accidents were impossible. Nevertheless, this accident, which did not kill anyone and whose radiation of the ground and river was invisible and diffuse, was not perceived as a catastrophe, and it did not influence either the management or perception of civilian nuclear power in Europe.

The two cooling towers and the front part of the power plant at Three Mile Island (USA) (height: 125 meters; power: 805 mW). Photo by Jean-Paul ANTOINE, Jean-Luc and Sylvie BURGUNDER Fund, Foundation for Political Ecology.

Experts in France advocated for the national network and their exceptional safety; however, doubts began to creep into citizens’ minds and helped foment protests and policies that sought to fight the Messmer Plan’s construction projects.

Less than a decade later, on April 26, 1986, the accident at Chernobyl in the Ukraine further reduced the certainty that the technology was infallible. The scale of the accident’s health and environmental effects, which emerged gradually over time, profoundly shook the myth of the nuclear power industry’s total safety. Nuclear became stressful.

APRIL 26, 1986: Chernobyl, Ukraine

On April 25, as an experiment was being conducted on reactor no. 4 at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, which was an RBMK type, like most Societ reactors, the team of technicians in charge committed a serious breach of the operating rules. They isolated the reactor’s safety cooling circuit and placed the reactor’s power at a particularly unstable level. During the night, the reactor went out of control. On April 26 at 1:23 AM, in just a few seconds, an increase in power caused an explosion that launched 1,000 tons of cement slab from the reactor into the air, which then fell back onto the reactor and cracked it open, sending 50 tons of radioactive fuel into a state of fusion. A few seconds later, a second explosion occurred. 5 to 10 times more powerful that the first, this cleaved the building even more and leaked 70 tons of fuel out of the reactor. A radioactive plume escaped from the damaged reactor, where the fusion continued.

State of the Caesium-137 contamination in 1996 after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 2006, Eric Gaba.

A radioactive cloud formed above the site and began to spread across almost all of Europe.

Prypiat and the other villages surrounding the plant were evacuated during the day on April 27. As the radioactive fire continued to spew fumes, the first experts were sent in to assess the damages and try to put out the fire. Several hundred young army recruits were sent to work at the site for several months after the fire was finally contained, cleaning and building the “sarcophagus” to cover the reactor that they hoped would enclose and contain the radioactivity.


“We didn’t have any dosimeters. In four and a half years, I never once saw one of these devices, nicknamed “pencils,” which indicate the accumulation of doses of external radiation. And we ignored the “cassettes” that were given to the entire team. They were designed for small doses. Because the dose was high, we knew that the limit had been exceeded, but we had no way of knowing by how much.”

Natalia Mazourova, “From the ‘Trace’ to the ‘Zone’.” Tumultes 1/2009 (no. 32-33), pgs. 145-159.


In France, the management of the passage of the radioactive cloud from the Chernobyl explosion is symptomatic of the opacity surrounding nuclear accidents. As the cloud reached the countries bordering France, the official line offered by the Office of Protection against Ionizing Radiation (SCPRI) and its Director Pierre Pellerin was to reassure the public that the cloud had not crossed over into French territory.

The SCPRI continued to engage in this act of veritable dissimulation for 10 days following the accident. The media were exploited as the weather reports on television spoke of the miraculous presence of an anti-cyclone that kept the radioactive cloud at bay along the country’s eastern boundaries.

“It’s a kind of event that I would call open-ended. These catastrophes are limitless over time, in space, and in the social imagination. This is why, even when we rely on statistics, for example, we have a hard time imagining how many deaths and injuries it entails. To push this reasoning further, we can say that today, 25 years after Chernobyl, many of the accident’s victims haven’t even been born yet.” Ulrich Beck

From the film The World after Fukushima, by Kenichi Watanabe, 2012.


In the CEA’s research centers, the detectors at the EDF power plants clearly detected the cloud’s passage, but people were prohibited from providing information to the general public. At the same time, as neighboring countries took numerous steps to protect their populations, especially by prohibiting the consumption of fresh foods, French authorities did not adopt a single measure.


“At Saclay (CEA), management prohibited any explanation of the measures we had taken, which nevertheless did not reveal anything terribly worrisome ”


recalled M. Zerbib, former Radiation Protection Engineer at CEA (France). 



This veritable lie by the government was instantly refuted by numerous voices from within the scientific community who expressed their indignation at the government’s inaction. In eastern France, citizens came together and took things into their own hands at the local level. This initiative gave rise to the Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (CRII-Rad), which challenged the SCPRI’s statements and conducted its own assessment.


Similarly, the Association for Monitoring Radioactivity in the West, or ACRO, also played a very important role in terms of creating citizen awareness and providing a counter-balance in the nuclear domain.



On May 10, in a televised debate with Monique Sené, nuclear physicist and researcher at the CNRS, Pierre Pellerin finally admitted that the cloud was passing over France.

The criticisms following the accident at Chernobyl focused more on the handling of information and the government’s dishonesty than on the safety of the nuclear model. After some discrediting by the media, experts once again vaunted how exceptionally safe the French infrastructure was compared to the run-down Soviet reactors. However, the two accidents at the Saint-Laurent-des-Eaux plant along the Loire in 1963 and again in 1980 showed that the French system also had its vulnerabilities.

The accident at Chernobyl gave new momentum to criticisms of nuclear energy across Europe: in 1987, Italy held a referendum that expressed the will of the majority of its citizens not to use nuclear energy; in Germany, the social-democratic party (SPD) foresaw a move away from nuclear energy. Nevertheless, these questionings of the viability of electricity obtained from nuclear power remained isolated cases.


MARCH 11, 2011: Fukushima, Japan

It took until the most recent nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima in Japan for nuclear power plant operators to find themselves once more in the hot seat. In the days following March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami pushed 4 reactor cores at the Fukushima Daïchi plant into fusion.


Japan, a paradigm of modern technology and democracy, had become the site of a nuclear disaster. It was then that France and Western countries in general realized that they were not safe from similar accidents in their own territory.


The media continued to expound the idea that an exceptionally powerful earthquake followed by the tsunami that hit Japan’s coasts are risks that would never affect France. Never mind the storm of 1999 that demonstrated the vulnerability of the Blayais power plant to flooding, or the placement of the Fessenheim plant in a seismically active area.


After the accident in Japan, the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) asked EDF to implement additional safety measures, but in essence, France’s energy policy has not changed course at all.

To the contrary, other countries drew lessons from the catastrophe: Japan decided to stop using nuclear power immediately and definitively; Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium announced that they would transition out of it gradually.


Will reason finally prevail one day?

At the time of the Messmer Plan in 1974, nuclear power advocates estimated the probability of an accident to be absolutely minimal, on the order of 1 in several million, or rather, one accident every 25,000 years. That’s not true at all. The various accidents throughout the 20th century demonstrate the vulnerability of nuclear facilities to human error, malfunction, and natural disasters.

In an interview with the daily newspaper Libération on March 3, 2016, Pierre-Franck Chevet, President of the Nuclear Safety Authority, deplored the lack of awareness of the risks involved: “We need to imagine that a Fukushima-type accident could happen in Europe.”

The disastrous and long-lasting consequences of these accidents should lead us to reconsider the use of an energy model that has proven to be chronically devastating, as our decision not to do anything will surely have dire consequences for future generations.