April 26, 1986
On April 26, 1986, the world's worst nuclear power plant accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Soviet Union. Thirty-two people died and dozens more suffered radiation burns in the opening days of the crisis, but only after Swedish authorities reported the fallout did Soviet authorities reluctantly admit that an accident had occurred.
I've cut the long description of the event here because I have more to say about this one than usual.
The Chernobyl accident happened while I was ending my junior year in high school. At the time, the USA and USSR were still in the middle of the Cold War, and no one would have imagined that the end was not too far away. We were still frightened of the idea of nuclear war, and the two countries continues to maintain secrets from each other.
So the Chernobyl accident was scary on a number of levels. First there was the fact that the government of the USSR denied anything was wrong, although other countries were able to detect excess radiation in the atmosphere. Then there was the question of how much that radiation might be affecting the rest of us. It turned out that those of us in the USA were safe, but we had images of the radiation reaching us and no way of stopping it.
Despite this event, I remained a supporter of nuclear power as a generally safe and equitable way of providing energy to the world. And that led to an interesting discussion in our Social Studies class.
My teacher that year was Irving Steinfink, and everyone knew that he was very firmly on the liberal side of the political spectrum -- as were most of the students, including me. Mr. Steinfink had the habit of canceling the day's lesson in order to discuss current events when they were significant; we had already spent Wednesday, January 29th discussing the Challenger tragedy, for instance. So when we learned about Chernobyl, the next day it was the only topic discussed in Social Studies class. He wanted to know what we all thought of it.
Of course, most of the students in the class were of the opinion that nuclear power plants were dangerous, and that this incident was proof that we should shut them down. Now, I will admit that fission nuclear power should not be our final resort for energy; I hope we develop more solar power options in the future, and manage to tame fusion power as well. But in a world where our only other sources are things like coal and oil, which spew pollutants into the atmosphere, nuclear power is relatively clean. So I took the other side of the debate, along with only two other students in the class, one of whom was my good friend Jason Shimshi.
I pointed out that more miners died in coal mining accidents and developed black lung disease every year than people who died due to nuclear power plant accidents. One student (whose name I do remember, but I see no reason to mention her by name) made the claim that we have all these new technologies and so those people don't die any more. I boggled at that, and Mr. Steinfink, despite his own opposition to nuclear power, gently pointed out to her that she was wrong. (I always respected him for being willing to admit evidence on the other side.)
I further pointed out my "equity" argument above -- that in a way, nuclear power is fairer as it puts at risk not just the people who are getting us our energy, but also the people who are benefiting from it. Most people dismissed my argument -- one classmate had a very good response, pointing out that coal miners and the like are being paid to assume the risk. However, I still feel that this was a valid argument.
(As Isaac Asimov would say if anyone asked him if he would live next to a nuclear power plant, his answer would be no. But, he would continue, if you gave him the choice of living next to a coal mine, an oil well, or a nuclear power plant, he would take the nuclear power plant without hesitation.)
The real brilliant and prescient comment, however, came from my friend Jason Shimshi. He pointed out that the USA had to keep using nuclear power plants because we were overly dependent on foreign oil. (Remember that we had all been children during the gas crisis in the 1970s.) And, he said, if something happened in the Middle East which threatened that oil supply, we could get involved in a war that would cost American lives.
In other words, in 1986 my friend Jason accurately predicted the Gulf War of 1990-1991. I seem to be the only one who remembers this other than Jason himself. In 1990, he called me to ask if I remembered, and I said I certainly did and I'd be more than happy to be his witness.
His argument still didn't sway our classmates; in fact, the same girl who had made the claim about "new technologies" above said, and this I remember exactly, "But not everyone will die in a war." Jason and I talked about it afterwards, and decided that what she meant was that she herself was safe because she couldn't be drafted, being female, whereas we were all too conscious of our own need to register for the draft in a year or two. However, in class we didn't say anything in response; we just let it go, because there comes a point when the debate must come to an end.
I hope you've enjoyed this look back at how another major historical event had an impact on my life.
As often, you can find out more about this event at http://www.historychannel.com/tdih/tdih.jsp?category=leadstory and at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_accident