Twenty years ago today, "meltdown" became a reality. April 26, 1986 and explosion in Chernobyl's fourth reactor and subsequent fires during "an experiment" contaminated large swaths of territory in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Soviet authorities took two days to inform the world and their own people. There was no containment building for the reactors. The radiation that escaped went directly into the atmosphere. The disaster released over four hundred times more radiation than the atomic bomb of Hiroshima. The World Health Organization puts at 9,000 the number of people expected to die due to radiation exposure, while the environmental group Greenpeace predicts an eventual death toll of 93,000. Hundreds of thousands were evacuated. The United Nations says 7 million still live on land with unsafe radiation levels. Twenty years later. Still.
In 1979 when there was a partial meltdown in the core of the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, there were no radiation-related deaths or injuries, but the event itself took several days to control. There was plenty of debate about whether or not a full-scale evacuation of the surrounding area was necessary, but in the end, the reactor was brought back on line. The punch line: No nuclear plant has been built in the United States since 1978.
Ready for the really sick part? The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is still up and running. Feel free at this point to make your own Homer Simpson/Mr. Burns analogies, but it seems almost incomprehensible that something that messed up could be allowed to function. The concerns over nuclear energy are as real now as they were twenty years ago - whether the subject is building a new concrete sarcophagus to entomb the waste left over from Chernobyl or regulation of more "experimentation" by countries seeking to join the nuclear fraternity. Another mistake in this arena could make Hurricane Katrina look like a late summer shower.
Light a candle for all of us tonight.