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Chernobyl, 25 Years Later

The challenges of that crisis are the same Fukushima presents

5 min read

26 April 2011—Twenty-five years ago, the day the commentary of the Chernobyl catastrophe reached the West, I was in Washington, D.C., covering one of the annual meetings of the American Physical Society. A leading nuclear physicist was dragooned to speculate in front of a hushed audience about what could have gone so terribly wrong. His tentative explanation had to do with an obscure phenomenon called ”Wigner energy,” which I had never heard of and which I found hard to understand.  Evidently it was an undesirable energy release that can occur in reactors containing a lot of graphite.

That night, sitting at the bar of the funky little hotel I like to stay at when I’m in D.C., I discovered that the man sitting next to me was none other than Walter S. Sullivan, at that time the most eminent science journalist in the United States—considered by some to be the ”Dean” of science journalism. Sullivan, a charming fellow, was able to explain to me what Wigner energy was all about.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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