Lessons from Chernobyl

Ceri Au, Maisoneuve Magazine, April 27, 2006
Once an obscure town of little note, 80 miles north of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, Chernobyl was catapulted onto the front pages of newspapers and into the vernacular of global citizens with the catastrophic events of April 26, 1986. The explosion at the town’s nuclear power plant that day would come to be known as the worst nuclear accident in history. Releasing more than four hundred times the amount of radiation caused by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the Chernobyl disaster killed only thirty firemen and emergency workers in its immediate aftermath, but thousands more died in subsequent years (estimates vary between 9,000 according to the World Health Organization, and 90,000 according to Greenpeace). At 1:23 a.m. yesterday, exactly 20 years after the explosion, church bells rang out across Kiev and Moscow, as thousands flocked to the streets to reflect on the tragedy that reshaped a nation. No longer merely a geographic location, the very word Chernobyl evokes a visceral response in many, one that undermines the legitimacy of harnessing nuclear power in the face of such dire consequences. With sky-rocketing gas prices at the pump, the constant ideological tug-of-war over the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol and calls by world leaders to research alternative energy sources, attention has once again returned to the promise of nuclear power.
On last night’s edition of The National, Margo McDiarmid explored the current public flirtation with nuclear power projects. According to Tom Adams of Energy Probe, a consumer environmental research organization, the recent debate about a return to nuclear power is merely “a fad.” Yet China alone hopes to build thirty-five reactors in the coming year. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is offering financial incentives to investors in nuclear power; and the Ontario government is considering adding an a dozen more nuclear power plants to its current stable. Alberta also wants a plant to meet the energy demands of extracting oil from its tarsands. But of course the quest for a balance between energy and the environment doesn’t end with nuclear power. In the Post, Paul Vieira delves into recent musing by the Conservative government that would see Canada join the so-called AP6, a group formed last year by non- Kyoto signatories to develop and build technology aimed at curbing carbon emissions. Despite critics calling Kyoto’s targets impossible, environmental analysts warn that the AP6 should not become a substitute for Kyoto, but simply another tool in the international arsenal to protect the environment. Going beyond the typical green rhetoric, an editorial in today’s Citizen argues the West’s addiction to oil indirectly supports radical Islamic terrorism, and calls on leaders looking for legacies to champion “conservation and efficiency as a patriotic duty.” But while politicians and activists wanting to save the planet duke it out, it’s up to ordinary citizens to make environmentally responsible choices in their own lives. Whether it is by taking public transport or riding a bike to work, the everyday choices of citizens will create a culture of concern, one that will embarrass politicians into making environmental issues a priority and not an after-thought.

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