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25 Years Since Chernobyl

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Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Our thoughts and prayers on this day are also with the people of Japan, as they continue their struggle to bring the damaged Fukushima reactors under control.

I was recently reminded of a speech I gave at the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev in 1998. I thought today I would share it with you:

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Chernobyl Museum - Kiev
Thursday, July 23, 1998

It is a joy to be here again in Ukraine. America congratulates you on your progress. We promise to stand by you as you continue the noble task of nation-building. Ukraine is a pivotal country in the heart of the new Europe; and we believe that a free, prosperous and independent Ukraine is an important national security interest of the United States of America.

I have come back here to build our partnership by holding another meeting of the U.S.-Ukraine Binational Commission, in which our two countries work together closely on matters affecting our economies, trade and investment, the environment, foreign policy, and national security. President Kuchma and I both believe we made important progress in our meetings yesterday, and we are poised to do still more in the future.

But before we can make the most of the future, we need to truly confront the past.

Today, for the first time, I saw Chernobyl. It looms as a menacing monument to mistakes of the century now slipping away from us; a hulking symbol of human decisions unworthy of our children.

I walked through the abandoned town of Pripyat. I saw an amusement park that looked like a haunted playground, with a large Ferris wheel rusted over. A merry-go-round whose seats swayed slowly in the wind. Ten-story apartment buildings stood empty and abandoned. Four-lane highways led to nowhere. And I wondered - what has become of all the people who lived here? What has become of the children?

Perhaps I should have been better prepared for the emotional impact of seeing Chernobyl. Twelve years ago, just like everybody else, I heard the horrible news: Reactor #4 at the Vladimir Ilich Lenin Atomic Power Plant in Chernobyl had suffered a runaway chain reaction that destroyed the core of the reactor and blasted graphite and reactor fuel through the roof. The blast ignited more than 30 fires, releasing lethal radioactivity, and unleashing the worst nuclear power accident the world has ever seen.

As many as 135,000 people were evacuated. The full count of Chernobyl's dead can never be known, because radioactivity seeps silently into the human body, taking its time before taking its victims.

In the midst of remembering this sorrow, we can still see the lessons of courage that the human spirit can startle us into learning: families were shielded from even greater fallout by the heroic action of so many who put their concern for others above their concern for themselves.

Vladimir Privak, commander of the fire crew in charge of the Chernobyl plant, arrived first on the scene. He knew his team was too small for the fire, and sent a message for backups throughout the whole Kiev region. While his crew battled the fire in the machine hall, he joined another team battling the fire in the reactor. He fell in hours, while the reactor burned furiously for days.

One doctor, only in his thirties, had willingly gone to the disaster site to rescue others. For his selfless act, he suffered large black blisters, ulcerated skin, and red weeping burns that put him in pain beyond the reach of morphine. He died twelve days after the explosion.

Lybov Kovalevska was the editor of the Pripyat newspaper. In March 1986 - one month before the explosion - she wrote a major critique of the Chernobyl Plant, warning of a coming disaster. Because of communist suppression, her neighbors could neither debate her findings nor demand action. When the disaster which she had foreseen did come to pass, she joined teams to help clean up the radioactive contamination. Her neighbors now cherish the fruits of democracy that her brave writing heralded. Kovalevska herself now suffers from the thyroid cancer that free speech in her community might have prevented.

These heroes and heroines were not alone. More than 600,000 workers - like an army deployed in defense of the motherland - took on the dangerous task of cleaning up the radioactive waste, and suffered harsh physical and psychological consequences for their bravery.

When Reactor #4 blasted its radioactivity into the skies of Europe, the wind carried it around the world. Within days of the event, cattle, sheep and horses coming from Poland and Austria to Italy were toxic. In West Germany, children were told not to play in their sandboxes. Doctors and scientists began to frantically draw circles on the map of Europe with Chernobyl at the center.

And the circumference of the circles grew larger and larger each day and each night. Elevated levels of radiation were found in Poland, Austria, Italy, Norway, Sweden - and then in Japan, Canada, and the U.S. Today, there are still thousands and thousands of acres of poisoned farmland and ghost towns across Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

Even after the reactor fire went out, radioactivity continued to spill into the town's atmosphere. One month after the disaster, Chernobyl released every day more radioactivity than the next worst nuclear accident that has been documented had released in total. It took 7,000 tons of metal and 400,000 cubic meters of reinforced concrete to bury hundreds of tons of nuclear fuel and radioactive debris inside a sarcophagus.

And Soviet authorities put people at greater risk by concealing their mistakes. Even when the Ukrainian people were fighting heroically to contain the damage, their communist party leaders remained silent. It was only the sounding of radiation monitors at a nuclear power plant in Sweden that finally broke the Soviet silence. Sweden demanded an answer, and the Soviet Union admitted a minor accident.

But still they kept their own people in the dark. Five days after the disaster - when senior Communist party officials in Kiev who knew the gravity of the situation had sent or taken their children to Crimea or to their resorts in the Carpathian mountains - the same party leaders assured the people of Kiev that they were not at risk, and children flooded the streets of Kiev to take part in the annual May Day parade.

I later met one of those children, a young Ukrainian boy whose family had been denied access to the truth. So his mother trustingly took her two-year old son to the May Day parade in Kiev, even as radiation continued to spread through the skies of Ukraine and down the Dnieper River, and on that May Day, 1986 into the body of that child, causing cancer.

Years later, the children of Chernobyl have many times the average rate of cancer, and many times the average rate of psychiatric problems. Most terrible of all is the fear: fear of radiation, fear of sickness, and fear that one's own children will be born neither healthy nor whole.

A few years after the disaster, my wife Tipper and I took our children to see an exhibition of photographs of Chernobyl. My family will never forget the power of those images: a child's doll abandoned on an unmade bed - next to a gas mask; photos of smiling children scattered hastily on the floor, left behind in an empty apartment with a parakeet dead in its cage.

What has become of the children - the faces in those photographs over here to my right - the children of Chernobyl? What has become of them? Their fates challenge us: Will this be the last nuclear disaster, or just one of the first?

I thought of those children when I saw the signs of deserted towns as I entered the museum this morning; on one side of the sign, the name of the town; on the other, a red slash through the name. Each sign symbolizes hundreds of boys and girls, mothers and fathers, torn from their homes. Like parents everywhere, I thought of my own children; I thought how fragile was their safety and shelter, and how dependent on adults' choices. I thought of the anguish that must have been felt by the families that had to leave their homes behind. Unlike those who are evacuated for hurricanes, or floods, or earthquakes, the children of Chernobyl can never come home.

Chernobyl is not primarily about the cruelty of Communism. If you want to know about that, go to the memorial a few blocks from here to the millions who died in Stalin's forced famine 65 years ago. He called it collectivization, but it was mass murder. And the weapon was communismtself. Nor is Chernobyl primarily a lesson about evil. If you want to know about that, go to Babi Yar.

The lesson of Chernobyl is not an indictment of nuclear power as such. Nuclear power, designed well, regulated properly, cared for meticulously, has a place in the world's energy supply. And certainly the lesson of Chernobyl is not that we should retreat from new technology. Technology used for human reasons, in humane hands, holds the promise of improving the quality of our lives. Today, for example, Lybov Kovalevska's prophetic warning about Chernobyl would have been instantly spread on the Internet throughout Ukraine and the rest of the world. Wisely used for compassionate purposes, technology is part of the answer, and not itself the problem.

The heroes of Chernobyl did not die so that we would remain in ignorance. Their deaths must be turned into lessons of great beauty and hope. We must learn, as a world, the true lessons Chernobyl and its martyrs teach us about the possibilities of human kindness.

In fact, the real lesson of Chernobyl is the need for redemption. Certainly the need to learn from our mistakes is apparent in the place itself. There is not yet any sign of forgiveness there. As from Eden, we have been banished. Because of what we did and what we neglected to do.

But we can be redeemed. The truth, as we have been taught, will set us free. And the truth taught by Chernobyl is that we are all connected - forever. The truth is that a new time has come in which we have to make a choice.

We can choose to learn how to care for one another and the earth in a way that is worthy at last of our children's innocent trust in us; or we can choose once again, as we have so bitterly over the course of the last millennium, to persevere in our old habits of destruction and fail their trust.

Suffering binds us together as human beings, and has redemptive power to transform those who open their hearts to the new understandings that were concealed from view until the suffering -and empathy - made them accessible.

In that sense, what happened at Chernobyl is capable of transforming not only those who endured the tragedy itself, but all of us -- if we learn the lesson that we are all connected.

We have the power to learn to be human in a better way now. Of course, we've tried to adapt to global conflicts and scarce resources technologically and materially. But the lesson of Chernobyl - as our children's faces alone can teach us, is that we have the great gift - the opportunity - to adapt now spiritually as well. We can evolve now not just with our tools and technologies, but with our hearts.

And we must. For one thing, fratricidal conflicts still tear at our world. And new weapons make the potential consequences much greater. Only in our hearts will we find the way to healing.

And what is the difference between the Bosnians and Serbs? Between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland? Between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East? All, it's true, worship God in different ways. But it is the same God. And I'll wager, from the depth of my conviction, that from God's point of view, looking down on Chernobyl and the rest of the world, he sees one family.

One family - in Pakistan, in India. The world recently learned that a series of nuclear tests were conducted by India. Pakistan responded with tests of its own. The United States joined most countries of the world - including Ukraine - in condemning the tests. The Indian and Pakistani tests jeopardize international efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. And the back-to-back tests might well provoke another round of military competition between India and Pakistan - perhaps eventually triggering another war, this one with nuclear weapons.

One family - woven into a single garment of destiny. If the nuclear tests conducted by Pakistan on May 28 had not been a test underground, but an attack overhead on India, every country in the region would have come within the circle of the suffering. We are all connected.

If the nuclear test conducted by India on May 11, had not been a test underground, but an attack overhead on Pakistan - the prevailing winds that sweep over the subcontinent would have pulled that radioactive plume back into India. The forces of nature prove what our wisest teachers have long known about the force of spirit: we reap what we sow.

One family - Pakistani and Indian children playing, eating, and laughing in those two countries while the adults threaten one another with the possibility of nuclear war. Shall we betray those children, or choose instead to safeguard their future? We appeal to the wisdom of the Indian and Pakistani peoples and their leaders to do what they rightly urged us to do during our dangerous, nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union: come to the table. Sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Accept meaningful constraints on the deployment of ballistic missiles. Help work toward a treaty to cut off production of fissile material, and adopt guidelines to limit exports of dangerous technology. Sit down together; negotiate; make peace. In the name of your children.

Join the peacemakers. The ranks are growing every day. There are fewer nuclear weapons deployed in the world today than there were ten years ago. The United States has reduced its own nuclear arsenal. We have done that under SALT and START II. And we will reduce further under START III once the Russian Duma ratifies START II. I am going to Moscow tonight, in part to urge them to do so. At the same time, the United States Congress should act now to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Ukraine has been a peacemaker. It has earned the thanks of a grateful world for renouncing and dismantling its nuclear weapons. "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks," says the Bible, and by shipping nuclear warheads to the Russian Federation and receiving reactor fuel back in exchange, Ukraine has shown us all how.

South Africa is a peacemaker. They had a nuclear weapons program and, as they made the move to democracy, chose to end it. Argentina and Brazil are peacemakers now. As their countries moved from military rule to civilian rule, from dictatorships to democracies, they agreed as neighbors to renounce the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan can do the same.

Over sixty years ago, Mahatma Gandhi said: "I have the unquenchable faith that, of all the countries in the world, India is the one country which can learn the art of non-violence." Gandhi was speaking of both India and Pakistan, both Hindus and Muslims.

In India and Pakistan, one finds some of the most ancient and deepest spiritual traditions on the planet. One finds hundreds and hundreds of millions of people who lead their entire lives in the bosom of their religious beliefs. They know in the depth of their souls that if we dedicate the human mind to overcome hatred, we can curb the evil impulse to use the new capacity of human technology to destroy. They know how to use the wisdom of Islam and Hinduism to illuminate our brotherhood and sisterhood. All the great religions teach that we must act as though we are parents of one another's children, with responsibility for their well being. That truth will save us.

The challenge of Chernobyl is to recognize that the circumference of our responsibility has become the earth itself. Maybe, just maybe, the dangers of our newest technology will move us back to the safety of our oldest wisdom - the wisdom of kindness. Humankind has never fully practiced this wisdom before. But survival has not demanded it before, and it does now. This is, as historians say, an "open moment" - a tremendous moment of choice that every nation can seize - not merely to survive, but to grow and thrive.

We need the kind of courage demonstrated by the Ukrainian people in the aftermath of Chernobyl. We need the foresight that the newspaper editor, Lybov Kovalevska, demonstrated when she predicted the disaster. And above all, we need the political and economic freedom to choose the future. In the words of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevehenko, "Then shall our day of hope arrive... And break forth into... splendor."

Then all nations who wish to seek a newer world can begin acting like a family that shares the same values, the same children, the same earth, the same future.

As I reflect on what I have seen today of the tragedy of Chernobyl, and the hope inspired as Ukraine's children grow up stronger and safer and freer than their parents, I call us to join hands and forces to turn the best wisdom of the world into new laws and new treaties, heralding a new era of cooperation - so that we may not fall apart, but come together; so that we may not perish, but flourish.

It is an audacious hope, to give up the animosity and indifference that have made our world so perilous. But we can triumph. Courage, foresight, and freedom can come together in a moment of choice to change our world. Let us seize this moment of extraordinary promise for human growth, and choose wisely what we know our children deserve.

Thank you for your long fight for freedom. Thank you for your commitment to peace. God Bless our children. And God bless the Peacemakers.

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