Nuclear Power Plant Disasters: Chernobyl and Fukushima

Brandon Wu
February 21, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Abandoned house within closed zone next to Chernobyl (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As the debate on climate change rages on and the use of fossil fuels comes under scrutiny, the search for cleaner energy sources continues. Although solar and wind energy are sustainable energy sources, they struggle to meet the world's current energy demands. A viable option currently is nuclear energy, as it can produce lots of energy with low carbon dioxide emissions. [1] There is no doubting the dangers of nuclear power. The effects have been seen throughout history, whether it is the devastating damage delivered in nuclear bombs seen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the different nuclear power plant accidents such as Chernobyl or Fukushima. Millions of lives are affected, often with severe consequences.

Chernobyl and Fukushima

Nuclear accidents are judged on a scale called the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale or INES. The scale consists of seven levels with one being an anomaly and seven being a major accident. Each level is ten times worse than the previous. There has only been two level seven disasters in history, one being Chernobyl and the other being Fukushima. [2,3] Fig. 1 shows an abandoned house around Chernobyl.

Occurring in the Soviet city of Pripyat in 1986, Chernobyl is the most severe accident according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. [2] While conducting an experiment with safety signals turned off, operator error resulted in explosions releasing huge amounts of radioactivity. 31 onsite operators were killed immediately. 200,000 square kilometers were contaminated in Europe as a result of the accident. [2,3] The total amount of radioactivity released was 5.2 million TBq. [2,3]

Fig. 2: Fukushima power plant during meltdown. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Fukushima is the second worst disaster behind Chernobyl, occurring in 2011. Contrary to the Soviet accident, this one stemmed from an earthquake, generating a tsunami causing severe damage to the power plant. Cooling systems for the plant were damaged and eventually failed, causing the plant to meltdown. As the plant continued to heat up, explosions occurred due to hydrogen gas buildup. A total of 770 thousand TBq of radioactivity was released. [2,3] Fig. 2 shows the plant during the meltdown.


The vast effects of Fukushima carried on long after 2011, with thousands of Fukushima natives still displaced, uncertain about their future living situations. Cleaning up the area is not a fast process, as it will take more over 40 years to remove melted fuel debris and to decommission the power plant. [4] This process will involve removing spent fuel from the pools, removing melted core debris, and finally decontaminating the whole entire plant. Beyond cleaning up everything and restoring the homes of the uprooted residents, public opinion on nuclear power also takes a large hit as a result of theses disasters.

Regarding public opinion of nuclear power and its benefits, Professor Nick Pidgeon of Cardiff University says, "if you went back 20 years and asked people whether they thought nuclear power had benefits, you would get a uniform 'no' after Chernobyl." [3]

The reluctance in public opinion does not bode well with trying to advance nuclear power in the future. The dangers are there, as we have seen through history, however, the benefits are also tangible and learning how to prevent mistakes and accidents from happening is steering nuclear power on the right path for the future.

© Brandon Wu. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] G. Steinhauser, A. Brandl, and T. E. Johnson, "Comparison of the Chernobyl and Fukushima Nuclear Accidents: A Review of he Environmental Impacts," Sci. Total Environ. 470-471, 800 (2014).

[2] G. Zerkalov, "Comparative Analysis of Catastrophes in Fukushima and Chernobyl," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[3] "Devils Bargain? Energy Risks and the Public," U.K. House of Commons, June 2012.

[4] T. Suzuki, "Nuclear Energy Policy Issues in Japan After the Fukushima Nuclear Accident", in Learning from Fukushima: Nuclear Power in East Asia, ed. by P. Van Ness and M. Gurtov (ANU Press, 2017), p. 9.