Twenty-three years ago today, the world’s worst ever nuclear accident took place at Chernobyl, Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union). On this day nuclear reactor No 4 of the power plant exploded, sending considerable amounts of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. This produced major damage at the plant and in its vicinity, and created environmental health problems as far afield as Wales. Only 56 deaths in the Chernobyl area were directly attributed to the disaster, but over half a million people were exposed to radioactivity, and it is not yet known how many of these have suffered from cancer or other conditions as a result.
Chernobyl became a byword for the risks and dangers of nuclear power. Apart from the damage it caused directly, it seriously undermined the cause of nuclear energy and gave additional life to campaigns seeking to end its use. Two decades on, the world is having to face the fact that our traditional assumptions about energy need to be revised. We may have reached ‘peak oil’ (the moment at which new oil discovery is no longer keeping pace with the exhaustion of existing resources), and other carbon fuels (such as coal) are also being phased out. In this setting, many experts are arguing that nuclear power represents one of the key ingredients of a viable energy policy of the future.
Chernobyl may be not so much a warning about the desirability of nuclear power, but rather a reminder about the importance of the appropriate construction, maintenance and use of nuclear power plants. In the light of the safety record of nuclear energy in other countries and the ongoing research into much higher safety levels and also the development of nuclear fusion (which when available will produce energy with almost no waste), it seems unwise to rule out this particular option now, and Ireland too should at the very least consider the possible benefits of this source of energy.
In the meantime, there are still many victims of Chernobyl alive today and still facing an uncertain future. Programmes designed to alleviate their position still deserve our support.