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Chernobyl Revisited

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated April 26, 2006

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Chernobyl is associated in most minds with the devastating health effects caused by nuclear fallout. Experts may disagree over casualties—estimates of how many will die from radiation-related cancers range from 4,000 to more than 90,000—but few deny the Chernobyl accident irreparably damaged many lives in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, as this multimedia report by MediaStorm demonstrates.

Yet twenty years after Chernobyl, nuclear power is enjoying somewhat of a rebirth in popularity, particularly in Europe and Asia, as this CFR Background Q&A explains. Experts, including Patrick Moore of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd, say nuclear technology has become more advanced and thus safer than it was in 1986 (WashPost). Others, like nuclear expert William Sweet, say "the utility industry has responded to deregulation by reorganizing itself (NYT)." Meanwhile, oil and gas prices are reaching near-historical highs, creating demands to find alternative—and cheaper—sources of energy. And a strange alliance of sorts has emerged between some powerful members of the green and nuclear advocacy groups. Some environmentalists say nuclear power, which does not give off carbon emissions, is a welcome alternative to coal-fired plants, and less damaging to the earth's atmosphere (CommonsBlog). Sixty new nuclear plants are scheduled to go online by 2020, a significant number of which are in Asia, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Plans to phase out a number of plants across Europe are also being rethought (CSMonitor).

But dangers and uncertainties remain. To date, no fool-proof plan exists to properly secure or store nuclear waste and spent fuel. Also, nuclear plants like Indian Point, north of New York City, will always remain targets for terrorists, some experts say. Economically speaking, nuclear power is very capital intensive, and investing in it makes sense only so long as prices for fossil fuels remain comparatively high (Economist). Government subsidies, as included in the White House's Advanced Energy Initiative, may help nudge along plans in the United States to commission new nuclear plants. But the government and nuclear industry should also take other pro-active steps, writes CFR Fellow Charles Ferguson (CSMonitor), such as pushing for more proliferation-resistant technologies and expanding the understaffed and underfunded IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog group.

This 2003 MIT report examines the future of the nuclear industry and finds that, despite its high up-front costs, switching over to nuclear energy over the long run will be more cost effective and will reduce CO2 emissions. RFE/RL looks beyond the humanitarian and health challenges that Chernobyl poses and points out the political issues that, twenty years on, the nuclear meltdown has raised in the region.

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