This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. More than an accident, it was the beginning of the meltdown of the Soviet Union and defrosting of the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev has written that Chernobyl "was an historic turning point" and "perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later." The secretive, cover-up culture of the Soviet state, he recalls, kept timely information from getting to the top so a quick response could be formulated. "The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else," says Gorbachev, "opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue. It made absolutely clear how important it was to continue the policy of glasnost."(continued)
The entrance to Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Image c Wikimedia user Bjoertvedt licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
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In both Chernobyl and Fukushima, before disaster began to unfold, few imagined that such a catastrophe was possible. In the United States, too, despite the knowledge since 1945 that nuclear power, at war or in peacetime, holds dangers of a stunning sort, the general attitude remains: it can't happen here.
How do these events inform us about the future of nuclear power, or its place in addressing climate change? One view is that nuclear power is safe and cost-effective, with long periods of stability and reliability interrupted infrequently by accidents. The other view is that power from the atom is unsafe and costly, with catastrophic accidents separated by periods of stability leading to a false sense of security.
While the history of support and opposition to nuclear power has been largely defined by the series of accidents that have brought safety into question, nuclear energy's role in preventing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions has also been important in decision-making around nuclear development.
Given the intense focus on Iran's intentions, it is logical that arms control issues dominate discussions about nuclear power in the Middle East. But receiving far too little attention are questions about nuclear safety. The lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima must be kept in mind regardless of how new nuclear capabilities are employed.