Thirty Years After Chernobyl, Debate Rages About Nuclear Power

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tags: Chernobyl, nuclear power



Thumbnail Image -  The nuclear reactor after the disaster, By Soviet Authorities, Fair use

For many people in the West, Chernobyl has served as a kind of referendum on nuclear power. Those who oppose it see the disaster as the ultimate embodiment of industrial folly. They point to evidence, extremely difficult to confirm, of increased rates of cancer and birth defects in the region around the plant. Those who support nuclear power, meanwhile—a slight majority of Americans today—argue for better and safer reactors and more competent operators. But Chernobyl has also had a strong and lingering political legacy. The Soviet state shared no small part of the blame for the accident, yet even in the era of glasnostit was unwilling to admit it. (Outside the U.S.S.R., the first indication that something was amiss at the plant came not from Soviet authorities, who initially kept quiet, but from a nuclear-power station in Sweden, where fallout, carried by the wind and tracked in on an employee’s shoes, set off the alarm during a routine screening for radioactivity.) To condemn the design of the RBMK-1000, much less nuclear technology itself, was to criticize Soviet know-how and jeopardize other economically necessary reactors of the same type. Human error was the only politically viable explanation. In the spring of 1987, Chernobyl’s operators and engineers were subject to what the historian Sonja D. Schmid has called “perhaps the last show trial of the Soviet era.” Not surprisingly, they were convicted.




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