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Nuclear lessons for today

The legacy of Chernobyl stresses the importance of security and nonproliferation.

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Twenty years ago Wednesday, the world experienced its worst nuclear accident. In the early morning of April 26, 1986, a steam explosion blew the top off one of the Soviet-designed reactors at Chernobyl, Ukraine. The resulting fire burned for nine days and released massive amounts of radioactivity into the environment.

Traditionally, 20 years represent a human generation. As the nuclear industry is gearing up for regeneration after decades of little growth in power plant construction, this is a perfect time to take stock of Chernobyl's lessons.

In 1986, the nightmares of the nuclear age were disastrous reactor accidents, thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, and nuclear terrorism. Today, while the first threat has greatly diminished, the other threats have grown and demand urgent action.

Despite the Soviet Union's demise almost 15 years ago, the US and Russia still maintain thousands of nuclear warheads ready to launch at each other. Recent improvements to the US arsenal aimed at achieving nuclear dominance are stimulating Russia to increase its spending on nuclear weapons. As a result, both sides are raising the likelihood of nuclear war, whether intentional or accidental. Moscow and Washington should renew arms-control talks to work toward soon reducing their stockpiles below 1,000 warheads.

For this reason, the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident provides a timely reminder for what can go wrong without careful safety planning.

The Chernobyl accident spurred dramatic improvements in reactor safety. Reeling from the accident, the nuclear industry quickly formed a peer review group called the World Association of Nuclear Operators. WANO has done extensive safety examinations of nuclear plants worldwide.

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