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The Road from Chernobyl

GENEVA – Like a modern-day Pompeii, the streets and buildings of Prypyat stand frozen by a disaster. But, unlike the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago, Prypyat was destroyed by a manmade – and thus preventable – catastrophe.

Weeds and grey desolation are all that thrive in this once-bustling community, which housed the workers of Chernobyl’s doomed nuclear power plant, whose devastating meltdown 26 years ago still inflicts physical and socioeconomic harm on many in Ukraine and nearby countries. Back then, the world was, for an instant, shocked by the folly of nuclear technology. But, as with Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, and last year’s Fukushima meltdown in Japan, the spike in global dismay was all too fleeting.

This myopia is a symptom of steady population growth, coupled with consumption-driven economies and ever-increasing demand for cheap energy. But the risks clearly outweigh the alleged benefits. While nuclear energy’s advocates often claim that there have been only two major calamities, a very different picture emerges if we consider other “accidents” that caused loss of human life or significant property damage.

Between 1952 and 2009, at least 99 nuclear accidents met this definition worldwide, at a cost of more than $20.5 billion, or more than one incident and $330 million in damage every year. This recurrence rate demonstrates that many risks are not being properly managed or regulated, which is worrying, to say the least, especially given the harm that even a single serious accident can cause. The meltdown of a 500-megawatt reactor located 50 kilometers (31 miles) from a city would cause the immediate death of an estimated 45,000 people, injure roughly another 70,000, and cause $17 billion in property damage.