Casaubon's Book

Definitely read the whole thing

More importantly, the two disasters are analogous in the unprecedented technical, administrative, and political challenges posed by their remediation. In the case of Chernobyl, the technical difficulty stemmed from the need to handle high level radioactive waste. Chunks of nuclear reactor fuel lay scattered around the ruin of the reactor building, and workers who picked them up using shovels and placed them in barrels received a lethal radiation dose in just minutes. To douse the fire still burning within the molten reactor core, bags of sand and boron were dropped into it from helicopters, with lethal consequences for the crews. Eventually, a concrete sarcophagus was constructed around the demolished reactor, sealing it off from the environment. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, the technical difficulty lies with stemming a high-pressure flow of oil, most likely mixed with natural gas, gushing from within the burned, tangled wreck of the drilling platform at a depth of 5000 feet. An effort is currently underway to seal the leak by lowering a 100-ton concrete-and-steel “contraption” onto it from a floating crane and using it to capture and pump out the oil as it leaks out. I think “sarcophagus” sounds better.

The administrative challenge, in the case of Chernobyl, lay in evacuating and resettling large urban and rural populations from areas that were contaminated by the radiation, in preventing contaminated food products from being sold, and in dealing with the medical consequences of the accident, which includes a high incidence of cancer, childhood leukemia and birth defects. The effect of the massive oil spill from Deepwater Horizon is likely to cause massive dislocation within coastal communities, depriving them of their livelihoods from fishing, tourism and recreation. Unless the official efforts to aid this population are uncharacteristically prompt and thorough, their problems will bleed into and poison politics.

The political challenges, in both cases, centered on the inability of the political establishment to acquiesce to the fact that a key source of energy (nuclear power or deep-water oil) relied on technology that was unsafe and prone to catastrophic failure. The Chernobyl disaster caused irreparable damage to the reputation of the nuclear industry and foreclosed any further developments in this area. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is likely to do the same for the oil industry, curtailing any possible expansion of drilling in deep water, where much of the remaining oil is to be found, and perhaps even shutting down the projects that have already started. In turn, this is likely to hasten the onset of the terminal global oil shortage, which the US Department of Energy and the Pentagon have forecast for 2012.


My own thinking is that this probably won’t curtail expansion of deep water drilling for very long – my observation has always been that Americans would find some justification for shoveling live baby harp seals into their furnaces and gas tanks if they hadn’t been offered some better alternative model (not so much alternative fuel, since that’s unlikely, but alternative way of dealing) and it started to get chilly. But there’s a critical timing issue here – wait too long to begin developing deep water resources and the time horizon becomes infeasible – we’re deep in an energy crisis before they come online and the rate of decline washes away the comparatively small contribution to supply. It is important to note that may well be the case already anyway – and if funds dry up sooner for further development, it may be less the oil spill than the money that change the landscape.



  1. #1 Marina
    June 2, 2010

    I had a conversation with my Transition group last night about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Someone made a point that what’s happening in Nigeria’s oil fields every day is even worse and nobody talks about the environmental damage. It just doesn’t get media’s attention on the level the GOM disaster does. I am going to check this out since I am not aware on how bad the situation is in Nigeria (I know it’s bad enough though). Has anyone more information on this?

  2. #2 Stephen B.
    June 2, 2010

    Since the explosion and blowout, I’ve seen zero linking of individual lifestyle habits to what happened. Never mind what I’ve read in the media, even talking to friends, family and coworkers – they all seem hell-bent on blaming BP, Obama, other govt. bureaucrats, etc. Nobody sees or wants to see the connection between their own oil and nat. gas use and the accident.

    I ride my bike instead of driving as much as possible. Since the blowout, I’ve made an off-hand comment or two to people who questioned my bike use versus a car (happens all the time, even though I’ve been biking for almost 8 years) about my biking meaning less support for BP, the oil industry, and govt., and they just chuckle.

    Even the Gulf fishermen, who of course, I do feel sorry for, in a way, aren’t they kind of responsible themselves too? I mean, have you ever seen how much diesel fuel even a moderate-sized fishing vessel takes on these days? Then there’s more diesel for the on board generators, to power the refrigerators, some times there’s on-board ice factories, powerful deck lights 24/7. As bad as this spill is for fish, the end of the Oil Age might just mean an end to most of the world’s huge, industrial fishing fleet. I mean, could we really reap/rape the balance of the oceans’ fish with sailing vessels? Yes, we did it with whales, but trawling with sail power is much more difficult.

    But whatever. I have no doubt, we will continue to drill in deep water until the desperate end.

  3. #3 Stephen B.
    June 2, 2010

    Marina, here is an article with the information you are looking for. It appeared in the Feb. 2007 issue of Vanity Fair I think.

    The pictures of the impoverished villages juxtaposed to the oil processing facilities tell as much of a tale as Junger’s text does.

  4. #4 Stephen B.
    June 2, 2010

    The slide show doesn’t seem to accompany the article any longer. I found it anyhow, on a separate, search:

  5. #5 NoAstronomer
    June 2, 2010

    I feel I have to point out that Orlov’s article is factually inaccurate on a couple of points related to the Chernobyl explosion.

    But the comparison is valid.

  6. #6 mdiehl
    June 2, 2010

    To go beyond Junger and into more depth on Nigeria, check out the work of geographer Michael Watts, particularly his book, _Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta_, see:

    Very sobering.

  7. #7 Marina
    June 2, 2010

    Stephen and mdiehl, thanks for the links. I agree 100% with Stephen’s view on the industrial fishing. They are hardly innocent victims in this game. If you haven’t yet watched the talk on TED by an ecologist Jeremy Jackson on “How we wrecked the ocean”, please do so. I’d urge anyone to pass this on to their friends and family.

  8. #8 Marina
    June 2, 2010

    NoAstronomer, can you please point out some inaccuracies in Orlov’s article? I am very curious. Thank you.

  9. #9 Paul S.
    June 2, 2010

    There’s a certain irony about Chernobyl, since the accident at a poorly-designed nuclear plant helped to cripple a source of power that, if more widely used, would probably have reduced the global warming-climate change problem.

  10. #10 Alan
    June 2, 2010

    Stephen B:

    I don’t think the world’s human and sail-powered whaling operations really devastated (with perhaps a few exceptions) the world’s whale populations. It took fleets of steam-powered ships with harpoon cannons and mechanized processing to do that.

    But, you’re right that, with perhaps a few very localized exceptions, human and sail-powered fishing never resulted in the global over-fishing we have today.

  11. #11 Alex Besogonov
    June 2, 2010

    “Chunks of nuclear reactor fuel lay scattered around the ruin of the reactor building, and workers who picked them up using shovels and placed them in barrels received a lethal radiation dose in just minutes. To douse the fire still burning within the molten reactor core, bags of sand and boron were dropped into it from helicopters, with lethal consequences for the crews.”

    Complete BS. The closest to this came during the cleanup on the roof of the reactor – radiation levels were high enough there to receive lethal dose in 10 minutes. That’s why people were not allowed to work there for more than a minute or two. Ditto for heliocopter crews.

    Comparison is also not quite valid. Chernobyl produced an area where humans can’t live, but animals can live happily. Deepwater produced an area where humans can live, but animals can’t.

    Also consequences and their management are quite different.

    There’s only a very superficial similarity.

  12. #12 Stephen B.
    June 3, 2010

    Thank you Alan.

    I don’t really know much about the technology time line regarding whaling ships.

    Keeping that in mind, what I was thinking does now make more sense: we really didn’t destroy any large number of ocean creatures until fossil powered ships and boats came along.

  13. #13 Stephen B.
    June 3, 2010


    I’ve read various accounts of the emergency response to the reactor, and they’ve differed somewhat over the details. Whether crews could stay in the helicopter or on the roof 1 minute or 10 minutes, just doesn’t really seem to make much difference at this point.

    Regarding the other differences between the GOM oil spill and the reactor explosion. I’m not so sure that the is such a cut and dry difference between the habitability of the resulting environments for people and animals. I’ve read of workers being evacuated off of area drilling rigs and people having to close up their windows in coastal houses due to the oil fumes. I also suspect that, while populations of animals managed to hang on in the Chernobyl area after the explosion, individual animals undoubtedly suffered from radiation too.

    More generally, I think Orlov was comparing the governmental and social situation that resulted, or could result from these two accidents, rather than a mainly technical comparison.

  14. #14 Alex Besogonov
    June 3, 2010

    “I’ve read various accounts of the emergency response to the reactor, and they’ve differed somewhat over the details. Whether crews could stay in the helicopter or on the roof 1 minute or 10 minutes, just doesn’t really seem to make much difference at this point.”

    I talked to some of the (surviving) first-responders. Most of the prompt fatalities (including 28 firefighters) were during the first day when nobody even realized the scale of the disaster and that there was a high radioactivity present.

    Other comparisons are also not really valid. Oil spill is not dangerous for humans if they do basic precautions (like not swimming in the polluted waters) while Chernobyl disaster required permanent and immediate resettlement.

    Really, there is little similar aside from ‘it damaged environment’.

  15. #15 Glenn
    June 4, 2010

    Re: Fishing under sail. Actually, whaling under sail did manage to take Right, Bowhead and Gray whales to endangered levels. As for fishing; benthic trawling (dragging nets along the bottom) has been known, practiced, and condemned since the middle ages in Europe. Leaving out catch rates; the destruction of the benthic structures (think of it as infrastructure for marine life) has destroyed entire fish stocks and caused one species to be replaced by another or others (usually less nutritious, palatable and sellable). See Edgar J. March’s “Sailing Trawlers” for details on the technology and some of the historical criticisms of trawling.

    That being said, March also covers some of the reasons why the transition from sail to motors put most of the independant fisherman out of business and replaced them with big companies owning multiple vessels. The short version was that fishing shares (vessel, captain, owner and crew were paid by splitting the proceeds of the voyage) meant that a poor voyage under sail left the crew unpaid for the cost of their food. A poor voyage under power meant no way to pay for the fuel and, usually in the early days, the debt incurred to by the motor.

    OTH, it doesn’t take much of a motor, or much fuel, to operate in a dead calm, when a sailing vessel couldn’t work at all. So in the end, motors replaced sail really quickly. History has a _lot_ of variables.


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