At 1:23 in the morning twenty years ago, the nuclear reactor at Tschernobyl experienced a catastrophic failure, resulting in the release of somewhere between 50 and 250 million Curies of radiation. This is equivalent to something like 100 nuclear bombs. A little over half a year later, the wounded reactor had been contained in a giant concrete sarcophagus to prevent additional leakage. This cover is decaying, rapidly, and a second containment unit is underway, with an estimated completion date of 2008.

It was not until 12 December, 2000 that the Tschernobyl facility was shut down altogether by the Russian government, after prolonged international negotiation.

Surrounding the area today is a vast exclusion zone, for which special permits are needed. It is also called the Dead Zone, because the effects of radiation are very obvious to the eye. For an idea of what the exclusion zone is like, check out Ghost Town, a fascinating travelogue through the Dead Zone by a Ukrainian woman called Elena.

Belarus, the Ukraine, and Russia all struggle with the environmental consequences today.

Nuclear meltdowns happen.

I’m not sure this should force us to abandon nuclear power as an energy source, because it does have certain attractions. But I think it should cause us to carefully consider the use of atomic and hydrogen bombs. The suffering endured by the people and the land around Tschernobyl was and is horrific–I cannot imagine being part of a government today which would willingly inflict this on another nation.

It made me very uncomfortable to read recently that Mr Bush was considering the use of nuclear weapons against Iran. He already faces considerable outcry, including a letter written by 13 physicists (and five Nobel Laureates among them!), which outlines the case against the use of nuclear weapons. One of the strongest points they make is rather simple:

Using or even merely threatening to use a nuclear weapon preemptively against a non-nuclear adversary tells the 182 non-nuclear-weapons countries signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that their adherence to the treaty offers them no protection against a nuclear attack by a nuclear nation. Many are thus likely to abandon the treaty…(Emphasis mine.)

I would think after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we would have learned our lesson. But we bombed Japan with nuclear weapons over sixty years ago–perhaps it is becoming a distant memory in the minds of policy makers.

I grew up in the tail end of the Cold War–I know most of my readers were alive then as well. Surely you can remember the great fear which accompanied the Cold War, the fear that the world could be destroyed by two nations with nuclear weapons. Well, now we have many, many more weapons in our arsenal, and a number of nations possess nuclear capability. I’m sure I’m not the only American who sees a severe shortsightedness in an administration which is willing to use nuclear weapons preemptively.

I know that my gentle readers don’t always agree with me, and sometimes you even submit thoughtful and excellent rebuttals to my points. This is the nature of open communication and debate, and something I would not give up for all the world. But I would sincerely hope we can all agree that the use of nuclear weapons at any time, and certainly preemptively, should be seriously questioned.

Remember Hiroshima. Remember Nagasaki. Remember Bikini Atoll. Remember Three Mile Island. Remember Tschernobyl.

Never again.