Nuclear Tragedies Show Power, Influence of Information

By Jason Menard,

If there’s any question about the value of our Internet-dominated, 24-hour news cycle, look no further than the experiences surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and a similar event a quarter of a century previous.

For many of us, Fukushima provides us with an eerie reminder of our youth — and an opportunity to reflect upon how greatly the world has changed for the better in terms of sharing knowledge.

On April 26, we will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. For many of us, it was a defining moment in our lives – the moment that the science fiction surrounding nuclear power tragically became fact. A full 25 years later, we’re in the midst of giving our next generation that same defining moment.

Today, Japanese officials upgraded the severity rating of its nuclear challenges relating to the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant to the same level as Chernobyl. It is now a level 7 incident, which, as defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency, means a major release of radiation with a widespread health and environmental impact.

There are differences, of course. Chernobyl was much more dramatic – involving an explosion that literally blew the roof off of a reactor and sending radiation into the atmosphere to be carried across Europe. Japan, on the other hand, has largely been contained – although residents continue to be evacuated. But prior to today’s change in status, Chernobyl had been the only level 7 incident in history.

The world has changed so much since 1986, with the greatest thing being the 24-hour news cycle. In 2011, we’re privy to around-the-clock updates, live satellite footage, and a constant bombardment of information from sources, both official and unofficial. Essentially, we’ve followed the degeneration of the Japanese power plant in real-time. In 1986, we didn’t have that luxury.

And absent that luxury, we experienced fear. Not debilitating, tear-inducing fear, but increased worry and trepidation that feasted upon our ignorance.

Still in the midst of the Cold War, for many of us – and I was 13 at the time, so the world around me was already confusing enough – the Soviet Union was a mystery. There was a great deal of mistrust on this side of the Atlantic, especially amongst those of us who were younger. After all, perspective comes with age, aided by the acquisition of knowledge. In our youth, we see the world almost with comic-book-like simplicity: Russians bad; North America good.

We were aware of missile alarms, The Day After on TV, and Red Dawn at the theatres (again, I was 13 in 1986, forgive me). For some reason, during a nuclear attack, we were supposed to sit under our desks and hug our knees. Looking back on it, it was a confusing time, but living through it everything seemed to make sense.

Then came Chernobyl. Only a few months earlier, we had lived through the Challenger explosion. Many of us saw it live, as schools – thrilled by the presence of presence of teacher Christa McAuliff – encouraged launch viewings. That event, although tragic, was easy to process. We saw it happen. We understood the ramifications. Chernobyl, just a few months later, was different.

This was nuclear fallout, after all. This was the stuff that we had been warned about. Our knowledge of nuclear war could be distilled down to, “If someone pushes the button, we’re all dead.” So how, as a kid, do you deal with knowing that this cloud of nuclear matter was slowly wafting over Europe?

Would it come here? How much radiation does it take to wipe us out? Sure, there were jokes about three-headed animals and the like, but they were borne of nervous laughter and a lack of understanding. News was limited to 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. – with no international power like CNN feeding us live updates.

In the absence of knowledge, fear and uncertainty grow. Fortunately, our current generation has the advantage of knowing what they should be afraid of.

Today, it’s fascinating to look at photos of Pripyat, the ghost town left in the Chernobyl disaster’s wake. The pictures are almost haunting, as is the resignation of those few who have returned to their homes, despite the warnings and danger. And the rebirth of flora and fauna to the Zone of Alienation is inspiring in its stark beauty.

This also provides a road map, of sorts, for Japan. And it’s important to note that the event is not yet over. There is still a risk of a meltdown, evacuations are being expanded, and a solution to the problem has yet to be found. Hopefully, the toll on human life can be minimized.

And, for those of us who have lived through both events, this time the hope is based on a steady stream of information – not just speculation and crossing your fingers.

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