The Lesson of Chernobyl

Published December 16, 2018

Ukrainian Historian Serhii Plokhy in his important new book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe (Basic Books: 2018) meticulously recounts the history of the world’s most serious nuclear power accident. The book explores the flaws inherent in the Soviet nuclear industry that are traceable to the authoritarian character of Communist party rule that exerted too much control over scientific information while ignoring environmental and humanitarian concerns. He concludes that “The most crucial lesson is the importance of counteracting the dangers posed by nuclear nationalism and isolationism and of ensuring close international cooperation between countries developing nuclear projects. This lesson is especially important today, when the forces of populism, nationalism, and anti-globalism are finding more adherents in a world that relies increasingly on nuclear technology for the production of energy.” 

This message is especially important today as authoritarian regimes in China and Russia move aggressively to capture a growing segment of the market for constructing new nuclear power plants around the globe. The new commercial nuclear technology that China is promoting is based upon the Westinghouse AP-1000 Generation-3 reactors and TerraPower Generation-4 reactors that promise an even better safety record than conventional Generation-1 and Generation-2 light-water reactors.  Everything will nonetheless depend upon the quality of the execution. Ensuring safety and reliability must be a top priority to prevent the kind of completely avoidable accidents that occurred at Chernobyl and Fukushima.